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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015

 

Mollusk Man 
Story By: David Thompson
Photos By: Dana Edmunds

Given the chance, Mike Severns will talk your ear off about Hawaiian shells. And with more than two thousand shell species calling the Islands home, he can go on for hours. He gets excited about things like whether the whorls of a certain population of Maui tree snail turn clockwise or counterclockwise, even though he knows most people couldn’t care less. “If you ever want to put the person in the airplane seat next to you to sleep fast, try talking about snails,” he says, undoubtedly speaking from experience.

But there are people who share Severns’ passion for such things. Mostly they are either shell collectors or malacologists, the scientists who study mollusks. These are Severns’ people, despite the fact he is much more than a mere hobbyist but not really a professional scientist. The niche he created for himself is that of the guy who undertook the monumental task of cataloging every known Hawaiian shell species—from mountaintops to freshwater streams to the bottom of the sea—photographing them and publishing them in a hefty two-volume set of books called Shells of the Hawaiian Islands. 

“He’s really done a fabulous job,” says Jerry Harasewych, former curator of invertebrate zoology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, one of many molluscan authorities who encouraged Severns along the way. “If you find a shell in Hawai‘i, whether it’s a land shell or seashell, and you’ve got these two books, you can probably figure out what it is.”

Severns’ twin tomes—The Land Shells and The Sea Shells—are not going to help you stock up on amusing bits of natural history trivia. They’re meant as serious science. So the little Hawai‘i Island snail known as Catinella rotundata, for instance, is identified solely by its Latin name, not by its popular monikers, “snot with a hat,” “snot that walks” and “snot on the half-shell.” The curious way a harp snail has of turning the tables on a crab trying to eat it—by self-amputating a piece of its foot as a distraction, then smothering the crab in mucus and sand and then eating it!—is not the kind of thing Severns delves into. “It’s not the animal I’m interested in at all,” he admits. “It’s the structure of the shell. The beauty in the shell.” 

That’s where Shells of the Hawaiian Islands shines. With the scientific names of 1,566 seashells and 750-plus land species attached to high-quality, close-up color photos shot from two angles, top and bottom, the books are as exhaustive as they are beautiful.

Severns regards them as snapshots in time, an inventory of all the Hawaiian species known to science from the day the Native Hawaiians offered the first shell lei to Captain Cook in 1778 until the moment Severns ran out of shells to photograph in December 2010. Virtually every known Hawaiian species of shelled mollusk, plus a few hundred that science hasn’t gotten around to identifying, fill more than one thousand pages. “I grabbed everything,” Severns says. “If I knew it was from Hawai‘i, it went into the book. I got to the murky edge of science, the fuzzy edge of what is known.”

At his hillside home in Wailea, Maui, Severns keeps a twenty-seven-foot dive boat in his carport and a giant tortoise from the Seychelle Islands in his backyard. He bought the tortoise in Paris in 2003 but still hasn’t figured out its gender. “It’s named either Simon or Simone,” he quips. “They say you can’t tell the sex of those things for years.” The dive boat has many nautical miles on it. Severns is a professional scuba diver who, at 64, estimates he’s racked up twenty thousand hours of bottom time. He’s an accomplished underwater photographer, and for many years he earned a living running dive tours, a business his ex-wife wound up with after an amicable divorce.

Alongside Severns’ garage is the “man cave” where he did most of the work on The Shells of the Hawaiian Islands. It looks like the office of an adventuresome academic. Scientific illustrations of fish and color photos from exotic places he’s visited cover the walls. Thousands of shell specimens are stashed on shelves and in cabinets. Stone sinkers, bone hooks and other Hawaiian fishing artifacts Severns has found underwater fill a glass display case. Severns sees himself as a naturalist in the tradition of the great eighteenth-century scientist/explorers who mixed data collection with high adventure. When he wants to get into the deepest reaches of the West Maui Mountains to hunt for snails, his ideal is to arrive by helicopter, preferably rappelling to the ground. “Why waste time hiking when you could be looking for snails?” he says. When rebreathers, which the US military developed for bubbleless combat missions, hit the consumer market in the 1990s, Severns was an early adopter. Freed by the rebreather from the depth limits of conventional scuba tanks, Severns began making solo dives to three hundred feet in search of rare shells. He prefers to dive alone, in defiance of scuba diving’s cardinal safety rule behind the buddy system. “When I’m diving, I don’t want to worry about anyone else but me,” he says.


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