When one hears the word ‘Oman’, the most common images that invariably conjure in most people’s minds are the spotlessly clean cities, the bustling souqs, the beautiful mosques, the majestic mountains, the undulating deserts and of course, the vast stretches of sandy and breathtaking beaches, with their almost still turquoise waters.
While all of these are some of the better-known facets of this beautiful Sultanate, little is known of one of Oman’s most exclusive specialties … its unique seashells. Barring a bunch of world-renowned conchologists and malacologists, not many are even aware of the hidden treasures of the Omani seas and its shores.
For the benefit of the uninitiated, the terms mollusk and seashells refer to two parts of one and the same underwater sea creature. Mollusk is the soft-bodied animal that lives inside its hard exterior, which is the seashell. The two are of course inseparable. In a sense, a seashell can be thought of as a mollusk’s external skeleton. 80% of all seashells are less than two inches in adult size. And fewer than five percent ever exceed three inches! Of the different varieties of seashells that are found in Oman, over 500 types of marine mollusks and seashells have been identified and classified to be uniquely Omani – not to be found anywhere else in the world. Quite interestingly, in honour of its finders, five of the 12 new species of shellfish discovered in Oman have even been named by their binomial biological nomenclature, after them – Conus boschi, Ancilla boschi, Cymatium boschi, Acteon eloiseae and Bursa boschdavidi ! The country’s natural and varied marine habitat stretches along its 3,165 kms long coastline from high mountains up in the north closer to the Strait of Hormuz and plunges deeply into the balmy Sea of Oman and the warm Arabian Sea that cover parts of Oman’s rest of the shoreline.
According to geological experts, the Arabian land plate broke away from the continent of Africa after a mammoth earth-shift some twelve million (12,000,000) years ago. The coastline of Oman too was formed around that same time, which is why the topography is so different and varied. A closer look at the coastal map of Oman would reveal many hidden coves and islands which provide an ideal habitat for a wealth of mollusk fauna. Typically, sections of the shoreline of the Sultanate have distinct kinds, types and varieties of seashells. Particularly, the Musandam Peninsula, the Batinah Coast, Sohar, Barka, Seeb, Muscat, Muttrah, Qurayat, Sur, Ras Al Hadd, Masirah, the Kuriya Muriya islands, Hasik, Mirbat, Salalah and Raysut have some of Oman’s most colourful and unique seashells. Serious conchologists who flock to the Sultanate from all over the world regularly discover several new varieties of seashells in these waters.
The seashell fauna of this part of the world is amazingly diverse and it is in these rich and varying habitats that the distinctive Omani mollusks thrive. For example, the sand-dwelling Bivalves, Olives and Moon Shells get miles and miles of sandy substrate to live in. Rock-dwelling Cowries and Nerites get enough of the underwater rocks and corals required for them to survive. Places where rocks and sand mingle are a great hunting ground for the molluskan fauna. Beyond these factors, many other reasons contribute to the rich molluskan life such as the temperature of the sea; light and humidity; wave movement and action; underwater currents; salinity and such.
While beachcombing anywhere in Oman one can find seashells of a bewildering variety, in many different shapes, sizes and colours washed up on the beaches or picked up from their many hiding places offshore. The best time to go looking for seashells is during nights, at low tide, when these mollusks come foraging to the surface for plankton food. Usually they tend to avoid the harsh daylight. A word of caution though; in Oman, collecting live seashells, abalones, corals, crayfish and turtle eggs is strictly prohibited. This has been in effect to primarily protect these natural resources from being pushed towards extinction by wanton pilferage and destruction. If you intend to do some beachcombing in search of fine specimens of seashells across Oman’s vast and varied coastline, kindly bear in mind that the mollusks, like all other living creatures are part of a community which inhabits certain ecological areas. And many species are dependent upon others for their survival. So dear shell collector, please do not disturb the environment. Leave the shore just like you found it. Do not disturb the stones and the rocks. Juvenile seashells and eggs should not be touched. Kindly replace a live mollusk back to where you picked it up from, after taking photographs. Carry with you only those seashells that you find washed ashore, for they are already dead. A visit to the Natural History Museum in Muscat would reveal a breathtaking collection of the more colourful and exquisite species of mollusk and Omani seashells that are kept on display. Incidentally, an active National Shell Collection Group is involved with the identification of many more new species of seashells that keeps the list of unique Omani seashells and mollusks ever expanding.