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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, May 8, 2000

Barnacle shell
delights, once
smell is gone

A few months ago, during a trip to South America, I unexpectedly found myself in the Chilean seacoast town of Puerto Montt. I wasn't there an hour before I discovered the city had a wonderful marketplace. Scores of tiny shops and cafes extended for blocks around the harbor, beckoning visitors with everything from hand-knit sweaters to jars of sea-urchin guts.

Fascinated, my friends and I explored the open-air booths, searching for the perfect souvenirs. The alpaca sweaters were lovely -- but not for me. Nor did the handsome jewelry or crafted leather goods zing me either.

Finally, I gave up and we headed for a cafe for lunch. We wound through the market's narrow isles, packed densely with just about every species of seafood known to humanity.

I found these marine plants and animals so interesting my friends had to nag me to keep going. I stopped to watch a woman smash open huge barnacle shells with a hammer. As the white, limestone shells crumbled, the woman scooped up the slimy, gray innards and dropped them into a bowl.

"Look at the size of those barnacles!" I said. "Too bad she's breaking the shells. Can we look for some whole ones? Please?"

My friends helped me search the market, but all the giant barnacle shells were destroyed or still had the animal inside.

Finally, my London friend insisted we eat. I'm glad he did. For in the far reaches of the market lay a tiny cafe. And perched on a shelf in front, as an advertisement for the culinary delights served inside, sat the biggest, most beautiful barnacle shell I have ever seen.

I picked up the bulky shell. It was about 5 inches tall and 5 inches wide and looked like a tiny white volcano. I held it up to my face and peered inside. A few morsels of meat remained and -- oh, dear -- this little volcano was spewing a potent substance: fumes of dead barnacle. The smell was so strong my eyes watered, but that didn't diminish my love for this shell.

"I've got to have this," I announced. "Do you think it's for sale?"

At that moment, the hostess approached, urging us to go in, sit down, eat.

I ordered a plate lunch and soon came the food: sausage, boiled potatoes and heaps of mussels and clams. My brave partner, however, ordered the seafood variety platter. When it arrived, we all stared at his plate. There, instantly identifiable by their feathery feeding appendages, lay several gigantic barnacles. Raw.

"It's your duty to try one," my friends agreed. And a barnacle came slithering onto my plate.

Reluctantly, I cut off a piece of the cold, slippery, smelly mass and chewed. It was absolutely awful. The barnacle went immediately back to its original plate to be dealt with by the nut who ordered it. (He ate the whole thing.)

After lunch I again picked up the enormous shell and asked our proprietor if I could buy it.

"Si," she said, shrugging.

"Quanto cuesta? How much?"

"Mm. Two dollars."

A bargain! I thought, pulling out my money.

She's nuts! she thought, taking it.

Even wrapped in plastic, that barnacle shell stank to high heaven. But I hung tight, camping with it, hauling it in and out of hotel rooms and flying with it in overhead bins. Back home, I soaked the shell in bleach for days until it was finally respectable enough to live in my house. It now holds a place of honor on my kitchen counter, where it cheers me every time I see it.

Souvenirs don't get better than this -- nor do friends.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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