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89ON THE WATER

We thought it would be a good idea to help beachgoers by passing on some facts we've learned over the years about what to do in certain situations that you may come across at the beach. We all know you aren't allowed to take glass on the beach, or bring your car or bike and plow through the sand, or take your dog sunbathing. But what should you do if you come across a live sea star or Florida fighting conch on the sand - should you hurl it like a frisbee back into the Gulf or leave well alone? Here is a guide to what you wanted to know, but never knew who to ask and what you should know, but were afraid of the answer...Shelling etiquetteThe majority of the seashells you will find on Marco beaches at or above the high tide line are empty and therefore can be collected. Collier County prohibits the taking of live shells and in most cases (especially bivalves), it is pretty obvious if there is an organism in the shell. The sniff test will also point to whether you want to add it to your collection or not, since just a small piece of its previous inhabitant can set off the search dogs at Miami airport fifty yards away. Some shells, like the giant Atlantic cockle, mate in tidal waters and should be left alone. Take a look at the pictures (right) of a lettered olive, fighting conch, banded tulip, crown conch and lightning whelk to see wonderful examples of live shells that must not be taken. It is more than possible that a hermit crab has taken up resi-dence in an unoccupied shell and sometimes they will go way back into the shell and make it appear empty. More than once we have left our collection of shells on the kitchen counter to return 5 minutes later to see one of them wandering off towards the blender!Live sand dollars, urchins and sea starsOn our many walks along the beach over the last twenty years, we have found live shells, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea stars stranded on an outgoing tide and wondered "interfere with nature or let nature take its course?" Nancy Richie, Envi-ronmental Specialist at the City of Marco Island, gave us great advice. "Don't throw any live sea creature back into the Gulf, but take the time to wade out past where the waves are breaking against the shore and place them in the water". Or, leave them on the beach where they will be somebody's dinner. They won't go to waste. Live sand dollars have "furry" surfaces and are dark brown or purple in color. A sand dollar that can be collected, not alive, is white, smooth and very fragile. Sea urchins have purple spines and move them very slowly and their beaklike teeth on the underside may be moving also. Live urchins of-ten hold shells and other debris over themselves using their suckered tube feet. Studies have revealed that this "covering behavior" is to protect against UV radia-tion. Some species are thought to be more vulnerable to sunlight than others. None of the urchins found locally are dangerous to humans. There are three types of sea stars on Marco beaches and a relative, the brittle star.