Trails, shells of Little Cayman revealed in pair of books

Visitors and residents of Little Cayman can now find out more about the idyllic island thanks to two books written by author Pat Shipman. 

Ms Shipman and her husband, Alan Walker, has written one book on a nature trail in Little Cayman and another on the seashells that can be found on the island’s beaches. 

Explaining why she wrote “A Guide to the Little Cayman Nature Trail”, Ms Shipman explained: “The Nature Trail is reasonably well-known and quite a few visitors and residents take it. When we first started coming to Little Cayman, in 2003 I think it was, there was almost no signage on the trail – perhaps four signs total – and people often overlooked it.  

“We started walking it and had tons of questions: what is this plant? that bird? why is the ground different in different places? Because my husband and I are both retired professors who specialised in biological sciences, we couldn’t suppress our need to know what things were and what they ate or where they nested.” 

Once they decided that they do a book on the subject, they started asking visitors if they had walked it and if they liked it. 

“Over and over, people said, ‘It was lovely but I just didn’t know what I was looking at!’ So we started taking notes and photographs each time we walked it and identifying things and learning about them,” she said. 

The mile-long nature trail, known as the Salt Rocks trail, is located at the western end of Little Cayman. Migratory birds, rock iguanas, butterflies, orchids and a wide variety of tropical plants can be found along the trail, which is also an historic site with abandoned phosphate mines and the remnants of a railway track. It starts at Salt Rocks bay, the deep water dock on the northwest of the island and ends at Blossom Village. 

Ms Shipman admitted that although she had written and published quite a few books on science for non-scientists, initially she could not figure out how to produce the book because the potential market was so limited. 

“I approached two friends, Ray Hayes and Amy Gage, who are connected with the [International] College of the Cayman Islands, in case the college had some sort of publishing programme. They didn’t, but the two of them approached a number of friends who were concerned with strengthening the college’s offerings in biology and natural history. They and others, including the printer of that book, put up some money to help get the book printed and in exchange the college got 200 copies of the book.” 

The intent of the nature trail book is to make the path more accessible and better known to people. Ms Shipman said she believes that once people get “an idea of the intricacy of the dry forest on Little Cayman, and all of the beautiful and wonderful creatures that live there, they will treasure the nature habitats on Little Cayman more and be more reluctant to bulldoze, cut down, and over develop”. 

She and her husband took many of the photographs in the book and others were submitted to them.  

They worked on the book for about a year and a half.  

“One reason it took so long for a small book is that my husband and I are only on-island a few months a year. When we are in the US, we can’t go check things on the trail or photograph them. Also, the printer who gave us an amazingly good price on the book as a “donation” worked on it when he didn’t have other jobs. He was also across the US from us, so communication was a little slow,” she said.  

Ms Shipman describes herself as a natural historian interested in all kinds of birds, animals, plants, rocks and shells. She worked as an anthropologist specialising in human evolution and the ecosystems in which our species evolved.  

Ms Shipman and Mr. Walker also produced “A Guide to the Seashells of Little Cayman”, a ringbound book containing photographs of hundreds of shells, alongside descriptions of them.  

This book took the couple about two years to complete. “Getting the photographs of the very tiny shells was difficult and at one point we hand-carried my collection (packed in a couple of tackle boxes) back to the US to work on the photographs,” Ms Shipman said. 

The authors have an extensive collection of seashells and friends and acquaintances on Little Cayman gave them access to their own collections. Despite what appears to be an exhaustively thorough guide to seashells, there are no doubt many more out there that are not in the book. Ms Shipman said: “Of course, the very first time I went out on the beach after the book was published, I found a shell I’d never seen on Little before.” 

In their introduction to the book, the couple write that some of the specimens featured are less than perfect, as they used real, sometimes battered shells. “The only way to get perfect specimens is to take them alive and kill the animals, which we will not do.” 

Ms Shipman has collected shells since she was a little girl and said that many of her happiest memories are of walking along the beach and “finding a treasure”. 

“When we got our house on Little, I began collecting fairly often and trying to identify the different shells. Other shell books usually cover enormous geographic areas – like the entire Caribbean and Southeast US coast – and they drove me crazy. I would spend ages trying to match a shell in my hand with a picture in a book, only to find out that the one I thought it was didn’t occur south of, say, Georgia or that the one from Little Cayman was an entirely different colour than the one in the book.  

“I thought I could do better than that. Also, unless you are a serious malacologist [seashell expert], you don’t know the scientific families or species names of different shells. We decided to organise our book in a more used-friendly way, by shape,” she said. 

With so many shells to identify, some flummoxed the couple and they finally sent the photos of those they could not name to a malacologist.  

“He told us the reason we couldn’t identify them was because they were from the Indo-Pacific, not the Caribbean. We were really startled to find a number of shells that friends of our had picked up on the beach were from nowhere near the Cayman Islands. Apparently this happens around the world.  

“Sometimes people deliberately scatter ‘foreign” shells on a beach (why, I cannot imagine) and sometimes hurricanes or storms wash someone’s worldwide collection back into the ocean,” she said. 

Another fact Ms Shipman and Mr. Walker learned as they researched their book was that some shells look different when they are babies than they do as adults.  

They took all the photos in the book themselves, with each shell photographed against the dark background of a black jewel case. 

“There was quite a bit of trial and error. The funniest thing was that, for a long time, we painstaking Photoshopped the black background out and replaced it with white. Nearly all shell books show shells on a black background. Well, we found out why – they look better that way and the colours show up better. So we went back and undid all the Photoshopping we had done, laughing at ourselves for re-inventing the wheel,” she said. 

Both books are available at all of the resorts and at the Trust House on Little Cayman. The National Trust shop on Grand Cayman also sells the “Guide to the Nature Trail”. 

 

For more information about the books or to contact the author, email [email protected]

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