After the Big Blow

from Australian correspondent Patty Jansen
It is not often that you get the opportunity to go through a tropical cyclone and come out unscathed at the other end. In fact, the last time a cyclone hit Townsville (Northern Queensland, Australia) was in 1971, long before I moved there. Residents are still talking about it in terms of pre-Althea and post-Althea, Althea, of course, being the name of the cyclone. It virtually destroyed large sections of the town and residents were more preoccupied with salvaging their precious belongings from the rubble of what used to be their houses than looking for shells on the beach.

So when, at 10 pm on Sunday 23rd of March 1997, the cyclone sirens started to be played hourly on radio and tv, none of us, and especially those who lived through Althea, jumped up to cry out "You beauty!", as in hindsight we probably should have. The cyclone was only a category 1, the weakest on a scale of 1 to 5. It kept most of us awake for a large part of the night and it got pretty scary at about 3 am, just before the eye passed over Townsville. The wind and the huge amount of rain that fell -- horizontally -- that night caused a lot of damage to crops and other green things, but minimal damage to houses. Unless, of course, you happened to be in a temporary watercourse.

On Monday, every road out of town was under water, or had trees, mud or rocks across it, so nobody was going anywhere, but the first collectors made it to the beach on Tuesday. And what a feast it was! Most of the coastline is protected and beaches are very gently sloping with minimal surf. On Sunday however, I could see the surf pounding the beach through sheets of rain from the front veranda of our house. It had brought in many live shells, some of which we rarely ever find on beaches, mainly bivalves in broken or separated condition. Examples of such species were Semele casta, Acrosterigma impolia and Pitar trevori. The high tide line at Three Mile Creek, one of our favourite collecting spots, was littered with specimens of Pinna bicolor and Atrina pectinata. I found live specimens of four species of Pectens: Mimachlamys gloriosa, Chlamys dringi, Decatopecten strangei and Cryptopecten nux. The cardiid Plagiocardium setosum was common in shell deposit. It has a periostracum of long hairs, but soaking in bleach will reveal a beautiful pink and white shell. This is normally not a common species at all. It is very similar to another species, Plagiocardium pseudolatum, which we also found. The latter species is more elongate and more pink and purple. Venerids were common of course, especially Katelysia hiantina and Tapes dorsatus, but we also found several specimens of Antigona lamellaris, completely covered in sponges and still alive. They took some cleaning!

At Saunders Beach, north of Townsville, we found many specimens of the lantern shell Laternula valenciennesi. Glenda collected a whole heap of them. I personally don't like the things for the simple reason that I never seem to be able to keep them in one piece for very long! In the gastropod department, there were the usual naticids and nassariids, but also a beautiful specimen of Tonna perdix, and Cypraea errones and Cypraea pyramis, still alive or with dead animals. Saunders Beach yielded many Murex brevispina macgillivrayi, some still with the animal, and Architectonica perdix and A. perspectiva. There were also magnificent specimens of the turrid Inquisitor formidabilis, which were very fresh and had a beautiful deep orange colour. Beach specimens are usually yellowish white so they were a real treat. I was very happy to find several really good specimens of Inquisitor flindersianus and I. sterrhus, which we don't normally find in good condition. We also found some really good Strombus campbelli and its sister species, S. vittatus. These species have been confused a lot, but when you get familiar with them, it is pretty hard to see why. S. campbelli is much lower spired, has less incised sutures and has much more colourful patterns than S. vittatus. Further south, they usually find many good Ovulidae after rough weather, but we only found a few pretty ordinary specimens of Primovula pyriformis, Margovula bimaculata and Prionovula brevis.

We came back with bags full of shells, which were taken into the club meeting for display, where we all marvelled at each other's finds. Most of the shells that we couldn't collect have since washed back into the ocean, except for those that were deposited above the high tide line; these are quickly deteriorating under the influence of the tropical sun. But I am convinced that this one incidence will start off a period of good collecting, just as the previous five dry years have been particularly lousy.