Hunting for Ocean Jewels

Shell diver Jon Daly and his two sons brave the big blue to dive for jewels of the sea. A shell collecting family, Daly says that the best or the more unusual cowries are kept but the rest are sold as highly prized to collectors and shell dealers worldwide.

Jon Daly started collecting seashells as a young child, walking the beaches with his Grandfather. In 1972, when the family moved to Mandurah, the two local cray fishing boats supplied him with more shells, allowing his enthusiasm and passion for collecting to grow.

Daly spent 15 years or so travelling around South East Asia and the Pacific where he worked to collect a family of molluscs known as Cypraea or cowries. Typically oval in shape, cowries are the most collected family of seashells, known for their hard glossy shell they heavily sought for this.

Daly eventually settled in Perth in 1994, where he discovered local shells, more specifically, a group of Cowries called Zoila.

“There are around 250 species over 62 Genera of cowries worldwide, however it is Zoila who supreme as the all-time favourite with collectors.”

“Zoila are endemic to Western and Southern Australia, roughly Broome to Western Victoria but WA is considered to be their home.”

Figure 1 Zoila marginata grazing on geodia sponge. This is a top quality specimen. Hard to find: Good to find.

“Zoila, consist of 13 or so recognised species, found in depths from a few metres to about 180 metres deep,” he said.

Deep water shells are often associated with the crayfishing industry as by-catch and are usually home to a hermit crab, however most Zoila are live taken, hand caught by divers in the 5-60 metre region.

Figure 2 Zoila friendii. A female shell in a cup sponge brooding her eggs
Figure 3 the same shell in Fig 2 showing the egg mass. Brooding shells must be left undisturbed

In the mid 1980’s 30-odd Managed Fishing Licences were issued to allow for deep water collecting. 2 Remotely Operated Vehicle exemptions are currently in use, collecting a myriad shell families in water up to 250 metres deep, discovering dozens of species previously unknown to science.

Figure 4 Zoila marginata on eggs. Image taken at 27 metres 5 Fathom Bank

Daly purchased his Specimen Shell Managed Fishing License about 10 years ago and operates a 5.5 metre ali centre console containing a 3D survey (5 nautical miles from mainland).

“Along with my 2 sons Jack and Tom, we dive for the local Zoila-marginata, rosselli, friendii and venusta between Yanchep and Dawesville,” he said.

Figure 5 John Daly holding a day’s work, 1 Zoila friendii( Front Left) 3 Zoila rosselli and a pair of Zoila venusta at the back.2 of the rosselli were returned to the water due to faults that made them worthless

“Typically we fish around 70 days a year for 2-3 dives a day. We are a shell collecting family so usually the best or the more unusual cowries we keep but the rest are sold to collectors and shell dealers worldwide.”

Mr Daly says that the Psalm 107 verses 23-24 sums up his work:

Those who go down to the sea in ships, Who do business on great waters;  They have seen the works of the Lord, And His [wonders in the deep.

For more information contact:

Jon Daly

Secretary of The Professional Shell Fishermans Association of Western Australia

shelldiver@iinet.net.au