Conch Shells are definitely the largest shells you’ll find in the Florida Keys
Finding Conch Shells was once an easy task here in the Florida Keys. These shells are shallow water dwellers. They feed and live in and near sandy bottom with turtle grass surrounding the area. I’ve never seen any of these shells in water more than thirty feet deep.
Conch is pronounced “ konk”. It's is a Greek word meaning shell.
When the Florida Keys seceded from the US in 1982 we declared our country the Conch Republic after the this shell.
Conch Shells have been used as horns for many years through out the Caribbean. Key West has its own Conch Shell horn blowing contest each year.
As late as the 70's I can remember snorkeling in shallow water over the grass and sand and counting eighty to a hundred Queen Conch Shells each time I anchored. They’re no longer that plentiful. They were over harvested.
My shell book says the Queen Conch can get as large as 9" long. I got news for them this one here with the big flare is 10½ inches long and it weights just over five pounds empty. Imagine how heavy it would be with the mollusk still in it. It would be like swimming with an anchor.
Check out the two pictures of these Queen Conchs. I see both shapes while diving. I can’t find it in any information I’ve read, but I’m thinking one of these is a male and the other is a female. Why else would the shapes be so different?
The Queen Conch occasionally produces pink pearls. They’re beautiful. Some of the jewelry shops in the Florida Keys have them, especially in Key West.
Here's the legal information on the taking of conch shells in the Florida Keys and the whole State of Florida. By law under Florida Regulation #68B-16.003, paragraph (5). "It is not unlawful for any person to take or possess queen conch shells from the land or waters of the State of Florida, so long as such shells do not contain any living queen conch at the time of taking, and so long as a living queen conch is not killed, mutilated, or removed from its shell prior to taking such shell; provided further, that possession by any person, while in or on the waters of the State of Florida, of conch meat or of any queen conch shell having an off-centered hole larger than 1/16 inch in diameter through its spire shall constitute a violation of this chapter. " I should have researched this many years ago. It's just that everyone I know has always told me it was illegal to take the empty shell. Well they were all wrong. I carry a copy of this law with me at all times on the boat because the cops on the water don't know the law any more than the rest of the folks. So I now have a beautiful collection of these shells to enjoy.
Up until the last two years from my own observations the Queen Conch was making a real good come back. There were areas both inshore and offshore on the fore reef where I could count 30 or more a day. But the last two years with all the hurricanes brushing us so close has moved them or killed them. It’s difficult to find more than two or three in those same places now.
The food chain is interesting. I noticed a big difference in the size of the Horse Conch when the Queen Conch began their come back. The shells are huge now. Horse Conch eat Queen Conch. I’ve seen this many times while snorkeling and diving.
Mote Marine has partnered with the Conch Republic Seafood Company have a project under way raising Queen Conch. Last I heard they were having success.
One observation in the wild discovered the Queen Conch inshore were not reproducing, while the ones offshore were. They moved hundreds of the inshore conch offshore and soon they began to reproduce. They were trying to determine if the cause of this lack of reproduction was water temperature or water pollution maybe due to runoff from the rains. They were monitored to see if they would stay in the relocation areas, and they did stay.
Queen Conch meat is more tender than the Horse Conch. Most conch found in fish markets is from the Bahamas. They’re only found in Southern Florida including the Florida Keys and the Caribbean.
The Horse Conch is Florida’s state shell. It was declared so in 1969. It’s the largest of the conch shells. It can grow as long as two feet. The one I have here in this picture is 18" long, it weights 5 pounds and that’s empty. I did take this guy. I eat them. I make conch fritters and conch ceviche with the meat.
The problem in taking horse conch to eat is first getting the meat out of the shell. The second is properly cleaning the conch. The meat is actually a big muscle and oh is it sooooo good.
The easiest way I’ve found to remove the meat from the shell is to freeze the whole shell. Soon as I get him to the dock I place him in a plastic grocery bag and stick it right in the freezer. I leave it in for a couple of day. I want to make sure he’s good and frozen. Next I put him into a five gallon bucket of freshwater. When it begins to thaw a bit I get my DeWALT drill and the smallest drill bit I have and drill a tiny hole in the groove at the third ring down from the point of the shell. Drilling this hole releases the suction that’s holding the mollusk in the shell. In the early days when I took horse conch I hadn’t figured out yet about releasing the suction. I had a 50/50 chance of getting all the meat and guts out of the shell intact. When the tail is left in the shell it’s a smelly few weeks waiting to get the rest of the entrails out of the shell. Drilling a hole gives you a clean shell every time.
Very few people here take Horse Conch. I think they don’t want to work that hard for food.
Now I’m ready to clean the meat of the conch shell. You need a really sharp knife. By looking at the meat you can see which part is the edible part. I cut away all the entrails and the really firm part near the foot. Then I peel the dark orange skin that covers a big portion of the meat. I just keep peeling and feeling for and more firm parts and cut them away until a beautiful iridescent white piece of meat is all that’s left.
The foot of the conch shells all look similar. It’s thick and hard and dark brown in color. They use this when threatened to close the door of the shell. They pull their bodies into the shell and all that’s left is the hard surface of the foot and it fits really tight into the shell opening. They also use the foot to leap and hop and just pull themselves along the bottom of the ocean. Check out the picture of the foot. This is the underside that you’ll only see when the mollusk is not attached to it. My belief here is that the rings on the foot will tell the age of the conch shell. They look like tree rings on a tree, or a huge fingerprint.
Milk Conch are quite plentiful. I see them all over in the backcountry. They live at the edge of the turtle grass and in the nearby sand. I find sand dollars in the same place that I find the Milk Conch.
It gets its name from the iridescent white color on the inside of the shell. It’s so white you need your sunglasses to look at it in the sunshine.
I don’t know if this guy is edible or not. I’ve never taken one alive. I only keep the shell when I find them empty. Sometimes a hermit has taken the shell as his home. I don’t take those either. He found it first. I don’t believe in killing anything I’m not going to eat.
This Milk Conch Shell measures 7½ inches long. He weights 2 ½ pounds. The lip on the flare of the shell is three eights of an inch thick. I found it on one of the sandy flats outback.
The West Indies Fighting Conch is plentiful here as well. They’re short and wide. They grow to a little more than three inches long. The word fighting in their name is misleading. It’s named that because of the way they leap to get around. They’re a docile creature.
Helmet Conchs are popular with shell collectors. This one is the Empire Helmet Shell. It’s the largest in it’s species. They eat them in the Bahamas and other Caribbean Islands.
I found this one out on the fore reef. They’re usually found half buried in the sand. They live in the sand and grass areas just before the reef . It measures 9½ inches long. It weights just under five pounds. They’re a bit difficult to spot unless you know what to look for. I’ve never tried to eat the Helmet Conch. I haven’t seen a large number of them here.
The Conch Shell is celebrated here in the Florida Keys. After seeing them especially in the wild it’s not difficult to understand why. I hope the Queen Conch succeeds in making a come back. We need her here.
Return from Conch Shells to Dive and Snorkle
Return from Conch Shells to N The Florida Keys