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Jamaica by Marcus Coltro

Jamaica is known for its fantastic landsnail fauna – nearly 600 described species to date. I’m not very fond of deep jungle habitat, but knew that many shells could be found at the edge of the road and success would depend on finding the right spots. Driving on Jamaican backroads would be an adventure since they drive on the left; a taxi driver gave me this mnemonic for remembering to keep left: “driving on the right is suicide”.

An important thing about collecting landsnails is to carefully note the exact location for correct identification of each species. I considered purchasing a handheld GPS but I also needed a new camera and underwater housing since my ancient Casio Exillim stopped working. I found a great option that combined all three: Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3. That camera has a built-in GPS, altimeter, barometer, and compass and is fully waterproof down to 12 meters (a separate case for diving to 40 meters is available). I bought it on-line and checked it out in Miami – the GPS feature was great, even showing the name of the condominium where the picture was taken!

The flight from Miami to Montego was very short, just one hour and twenty minutes. It was full of newlywed couples. The forecast was for heavy rain all week, which should be good for landshells. I found a great package from American Airlines including hotel and car – which would cost at least double during high season. Sunset Beach Resort is all-inclusive; with nice big rooms, many pools and lots of activities. Of course, I would not have time to enjoy any of them. I even missed lunch most days since I returned from my expeditions after kitchen closing hours (a side benefit: I needed to lose some weight anyway).

On the first day, I snorkeled from 3:00 to 5:00 PM – the light was overcast and by 5:30 PM it was already getting too dark. Most of the coral heads were dead and covered with algae – a sign of pollution and chemicals in the water. I imagine that 30 years ago with fewer hotels polluting the bay, it must been a fantastic diving spot. A good distance from the beach I found many live spots, but not many shells. Perhaps the poor light made it hard to see them, so I planned to try again the next day.

I got up early and went straight to the reef. The bright sun reminded me that I forgot to bring a diving hood. It had been quite a while since my last shelling trip, so my skin was very pale and my neck would burn easily. What to do? I used my ingenuity and cut a shoe bag into the shape of a hood – it did not look very nice but it worked. The water was warm and clear, but there were still only a few shells - some Bursa thomae and cubaniana, Astraea caelata (nice ones near the breakers), Arene cruentata, Fissurellas, Cymatiums and some other small ones. It was my first attempt using the camera under water and at first I was afraid to use it without a waterproof case, but it worked perfectly. After nearly 5 hours of snorkeling, I gave up and went back to the room to get ready for a first attempt to search for landshells. Thank God I did not go there for marine shells only….

I was curious to see how the camera handled the location name. On the first pictures it showed “Reading” on them – darn, was it broken or simply not able to read the name and got stuck at “Reading”? Duh… later I found out that the place name is Reading!

Keep left, keep left…. At least the tiny Suzuki Swift had the wheel on the right side, which is an automatic reminder to keep left on the road. I got used to it fairly fast – the only things I kept doing wrong was trying to reach the seat belt over my left shoulder and turning the wipers on every time I wanted to indicate a turn. I bought a road map at the hotel, but since I can’t rely on my own sense of direction I also rented a GPS and a cell phone with the car. I drove west then to south but there was heavy traffic and houses all along the road. I moved more to the west and found a nice spot on a narrow road near Flynn River. I found several landshells such as Camaenidae and Annulariidae, but it was getting late, so I called it a day and went back to the hotel where a margarita was waiting for me at the bar. I ate dinner and went to my room to prepare the shells I had collected during the day.

Before leaving Brazil I had read about Windsor Cave - a 3,000 meter-long (9,800 ft) complex of linked caves in Trelawny Parish on the north coast. Supposedly it is surrounded by one of the best collecting areas. I tried to set the GPS to take me there the next morning, however, not even the GPS knew where it was located! I had to find a nearby town from the map to use as reference for Gisele (GPS is too formal….), so I marked Sherwood Content, which seemed to be close enough.

After a quick breakfast, I took off for Windsor Cave. I intended to stop on the way to look for landshells wherever possible. Most locals were nice and some asked if I was OK since I had parked the car far from any normal place to look for shells. Then someone approached on a bicycle, introduced himself as Thomas and shook my hand. He then reached into his bag saying he had something to show me - I thought he might be a delivery guy for Marijuana Express… but no, he had some handicraft to sell instead. I told him that I did not have much money with me so I could not purchase anything. He then asked what I was doing and I showed him a few Pleurodonte; “Are you going to use them as bait?” he asked… then I explained that I study landshells and he told me that he knew some places where they could be found, like on banana trees. This was a sign he indeed knew what he was talking about. He left and returned after a few minutes with his hands full of Pleurodonte. I told him that I could buy more shells later and got his cell phone number (yes, he had one) to arrange a meeting the next day and possibly to buy his finds.

Continuing driving towards Windsor Cave, I found a few more shells on the way. When I passed Sherwood Content (did not see why anyone would be “content” there…) I asked some locals where the cave was and they pointed me to a very narrow rocky road. Then I wished I had rented a Land Rover. Richie Goldberg from Maryland had told me that he had several flat tires even while driving a much tougher car. I was driving this tiny fragile car, with narrow tires that looked like bicycle tires entering what looked like an abandoned road, and by myself alone. It is always so good when I write these articles to remember and laugh after surviving all the hazards. Anyway, I continued driving very slowly trying to avoid the largest holes, and checking if Gisele would confirm the route – she kept saying “I don’t know were we are, please take me back home” - and finally got to the cave entrance. The keeper was in his hut and greeted me. He charges 20 dollars to enter the cave, and even more depending how deep you want to go – I did not lie to my new friend Thomas when I said I did not have much money, indeed I forgot to bring much with me – I also had to fill the gas tank before starting the journey so I only had $15! I asked if he would take me to the entrance for $10 and he agreed. I was not prepared for entering the cave anyway and it would be a waste of time going too deep. The sky was roaring with thunder and I did not want to take that awful road back in a storm, so I rushed to the cave. We walked to the entrance through a muddy path and he allowed me to enter the main chamber. It was very dark and humid and the camera did not work properly and kept showing what looked like water floating in the air. The cave is known for having thousands of bats but I did not see any.

I left the cave and took the “highway” back to the asphalt, but stopped on the way and found several landshells on banana trees as Thomas had indicated. Driving on the left seemed more tiring than usual. Perhaps it required using a part of my brain which is usually dormant. Gisele guided me to the hotel and straight to the bar (her exact words were “take a left turn in the lobby, sit at the bar and order a beer”). I was satisfied with the results of my trip to Windsor Cave. At least it was way better than the underwater excursion. I was able to collect at least 5 species of landshells, proportionately more than the number of marine species, considering that it took only a few minutes vs. 5 hours in the water.

That night I called Thomas and invited him to join me the next morning for a snail hunt - he sounded surprised and accepted immediately. Thomas seemed to be a reliable guy in spite of the way we met. I found Thomas at our arranged meeting point. I had never met a Rastafarian before and did not quite understand what it meant. Later Thomas explained that Rastafari is a way of life more than a religion. He makes and sells handicraft at a road booth which he shares with other Rastafarians. They sell their handicraft all year long but mostly in the "winter" tourist time when it does not rain so much.

I did not have enough time to cover the whole island, so I checked the map and picked a town where we could get through smaller roads, towards Brown’s Town in St. Ann Parish. Thomas proved to be quite useful very soon - he pointed to a place with a small creek and wet rocks. He understood quickly how to look for shells. In just a few minutes we found several species.

A few miles before Brown’s Town we drove up a small road, paved but abandoned, with trees and bushes all over. It was next to a hill so there was no wind and the sun was burning hot. Thomas went deeper into the bush but I preferred to check the plants near the road (now you know why I invited him….). It was so hot that I swear I saw a lizard fanning itself with a leaf. I found a few Lucidella undulata on a small bush in the middle of the road – the strange thing is that I did not find a single one anywhere else during the entire trip.

Beyond Brown’s Town we collected a few more shells – it is amazing that we found different species so close together. To be honest, since I am no landshell expert, many of them looked the same to me, but Jose was able to separate them later. I left Thomas at his handicraft booth on the road and told him I would pick him the next day for another trip, this time to Negril on the west side of the island.

The next morning we drove towards Negril. On the way we stopped on the small road next to Flynn River and collected several shells; this time I got some nice live Alcadia consanguinea, a reddish operculated shell. Thomas collected some plants in the woods – not “that” plant, but something he said was good for back pain - I didn’t know if he was going to rub it on his back, boil it or smoke it. Anyway, I was not going to let him take Cannabis or any other drug into the car, but he assured me it was nothing like that.

On the way to Negril, Thomas indicated a spot for collecting some intertidal shells (by then, I had completely forgotten about marine shells). We found several Neritas and Littorinas. A few minutes later, we were stopped by a patrol on the road. Two things came to mind: was that plant in the trunk really something inoffensive, and was he carrying some other “medicinal” plant in his backpack? The officers asked us to step out of the car and searched for drugs or guns. When he opened the trunk and saw that plant there he asked Thomas (in patois) what that was. Thomas explained and they all laughed. So far, so good. No handcuffs and they let us go.

We arrived in Negril but the vegetation was not as green and lush as in Montego – it was nice but no shells. We drove towards east to Little London and then to Lucea on the north. I tried a smaller road to check for landshells on the way, but had not expected it to be so small, narrow, full of potholes and passing through a cane field at times hemmed in the car on both sides. But it paid off when we got to the hills and found a spot full of landshells!

It rained and I had to take Thomas back home, return to the hotel and prepare to leave very early the next day. It took over an hour to Thomas’ home, and another hour to get to the hotel. It was raining hard and not such fun to drive. After showering and eating quickly, I got back to the room to clean the shells (must teach Thomas to clean shells next time).

My flight to Miami was at 7:00 AM so I had to return the car by 5:00 AM; no one was there to check me in, and I had to leave the car at the entrance. I took pictures of the car as I left it so no one could blame me later for any invented damage.

It had been a pretty good trip and I intend to return some day!

English checking by John Wolff


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