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E16: Cynthia Barnett: The Sound of the Sea

We sat with Cynthia Barnett at the Miami Book Fair to discuss her latest book, The Sound of the Sea, Seashells and the fate of the oceans.

I learned that you had a lot of false starts to your book, and that you struggled to find the right way to start it.


I had so many false starts. I had an idea to open with a sculptor, and so my mind went to Michelangelo because the Jurassic Sea covered Italy. And there were extraordinary seashells and marine mollusks there, that then became mountain tops. And now became marble. And now an artist comes and finds that marble, and creates something incredible that we all enjoy these hundreds of years later. And really millions of years later when you think about the original artist.

So sometimes I think of the marine mollusks as the original artist. And then someone like Michelangelo picks that slab of marble millions of years later, and that’s an afterlife. So I was in love with that idea. And when I say it, it may sound like it would work ok for the beginning of the book but it didn’t.

I got advice from my editor to think about having the reader “with you.” Sometimes I took that so literally that I would think of holding the reader’s hand in my hand, like when you’re with a loved one. And for me as a mom, you know thinking about my kids and collecting seashells with them when they were little. And me collecting seashells with my grandparents when I was little. I thought, I just gotta make this about kids and shell collecting, that I chose to think about the Neanderthal girl and connect it to my own daughter. And as soon as I did that, the opening worked. And it just took the right idea, and that’s sometimes what happens.


Let’s start by defining what a shell actually is, which I believe is the very same question that drove you to write the book. The misconception people have about shells. You mentioned that people often think shells are simply rocks or inanimate objects, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. So what is a shell?


I’ll answer your question fundamentally by saying that it's a home. A shell is a home. And so a nice way to think about it; to think about this book and what I was trying to do, it’s to think about the shell as a home to an animal and what it says about our home, this world. A marine mollusk—actually, any mollusk on land or on sea makes a shell—but I am just writing about the mollusks in the oceans that make seashells.

So first and foremost, I think of it as a home, but from an architectural standpoint, it is also an evolutionary defense system. So mollusks evolve to build their shells to protect themselves from predators. So their spikes and spines and shiny parts, all the things that we love about seashells really evolved to keep their predators at bay. You know, to stab them, and in some cases, like the really shining cowrie shells are polished like that to give the slip to a crab pincher. Like the crab is coming to grab it, and it would slip out of their pincher.


And there are a wide variety of seashells and marine mollusks.


There are so many. There are more than 50 thousand marine mollusks known, and there are estimated to be at least that many unknown. That’s another beautiful thing about the oceans. The scientists are constantly discovering new animals that never knew existed.

So there are as many shells as there are marine mollusks. So probably hundreds of thousands. And you’re right, they are all different. A couple of basic kinds are the gastropods: These are univalves like one spiral shell. Or the bivalves, that’s when two half shells are stuck together. And one builds its shell by kind of wrapping the shell around itself. Kind of building its shell around an invisible axis. And the other builds its shell by adding to its edge.


And you explained that mollusks build these by gathering minerals from their surroundings.


Right, gathering minerals from their surrounding seawater.


How long does this process of producing a shell take?


It’s primarily calcium carbonate by the way. And that’s why they are important sentinels for what’s happening with climate change, but it can take different lengths of time.

For example, if you think about a queen conch, which a lot of people down here [South Florida] might know because they are popular shells and popular in the Florida Keys. A big heavy queen conch takes about 5 years to build, which is so cool to think about because it starts as a microscopic egg and a beautiful gossamer bubble. And this little bubble will become the shell. And the tip of the shell is where the mollusk lives when it's a tiny tiny baby. And it just builds its shell bigger and bigger around itself. And when you see it, it is a work of art. It is a sculpture.


You book describes a dichotomy between having such a fragile creature build something so durable and lasting.


Exactly. I love that dichotomy. I find that so poignant that such a soft vulnerable creature builds this hulking amazing object.


Now let’s talk about humans, and our interactions with these creatures. It is interesting that mollusks play a pivotal role for humans starting from our diet.


It is really important. Scientists think that they may have been part of the protein that separates us from some animals. That we needed that additional protein to grow these big brains. So it it really is interesting to think about that.


And we eat them, we wear them and…


We spend them.

So money cowries were was the first global currency. And it served as our currency longer than any other paper money, longer that any other coin. We used seashells far longer than any of these other things, so I loved that.

And also, even the word cryptocurrency has a connection with the cowrie that was used for the global currency.

This isn’t in the book, but Cyprea was the genus. And that all comes from the island of Cyprus because it was, as you know, kind of a feminine symbol. And Cyprus was the island of Venus. And so, this word cryptocurrency actually has a tie-in to cyprea, the cowrie that we used for a really long time. So it’s all quite fascinating. The word crypto or cyprea meant hidden place, and that’s where it came from.


Let’s talk about Shell, the oil company, and a bit of the history most people are likely unaware of.


This is my favorite story in the book, and every time I tell that story in an audience, you can just see the jaws drop because people are so surprised. And to me, there is a more poignant part that I didn’t have time to tell today but yes, it’s incredible that Shell Oil evolved from a tiny tiny seashell shop in the east end of London.

But there’s an even more incredible story that I’ve reported since then. I am working on a story about this now. You know the company’s first oil tanker was called the Murex. It went into the Suez Canal to carry kerosene to the Far East. Recently, a group of scientists have finished a study of marine mollusks in that same part of the Mediterranean Sea.

That part of the Mediterranean, specifically near Israel, has become so warm, that common mollusks can no longer live there. And the one they cannot find any of, that used to be totally common, is the Murex. So, the same animal that supplied the purple dye to the Phoenicians. The same animal for whom the tankers were named is no longer found in that part of the Mediterranean.

There are two things harming the mollusks that are associated with climate change. One is acidification and that’s because acidification limits the carbonate that mollusks use to build their shells. So it limits the minerals that they can use. The bigger issue may be warming. This specific issue and study was about warming in the Mediterranean and they found in this part of the mediterranean that Murex can no longer survive.


And is it specifically affecting mollusks or other marine life as well?


Well, fish can move around. So the problem with mollusks is that It’s hard for them to move long distances because they’re carrying around these heavy shells. Or some of them don’t walk around at all. Some of them are just stationary on their reef so it’s impacting mollusks to a greater extent because they can’t move or escape that condition.

And sometimes, it’s just a temporary condition. It will be just a heat spike like we saw in the Pacific Northwest this summer. So if that happens, and a fish is there, the fish can swim away and find a cooler spot, but a mollusk can’t get away, or a coral reef. Coral reefs are also animals and they can’t move.


Why don’t we tie this back to the topic of climate change and how it is ultimately affecting marine life, which I believe it is the most important takeaway of your book.

Nowadays everything is politicized, and the loudest voices often fill the vacuum in public debate left by lack of scientific information and facts. There are many books like yours and a lot of science about climate change but those don’t seem to be the loudest voices. So, how can all of these scientific research reach a broader audience and bring facts to public debates, specially in today’s political climate.


That’s a really good question. So all of my work and efforts for decades now has been to speak to that audience. I am never the loudest voice or the angriest, but that is not really my personality.

One thing I want to be sure to say, is that there is an important place for that anger and those loud voices. I think we all have our important role in this, and you have a very important role too. We all have to find that sweet spot where our talent meets the world’s great need. And mine is in writing these books and trying to find ways to bring people together. So seashells are good ambassadors for that.

Prior to seashells I wrote a lot about water. Water is also a good way to write about climate change because it’s less politicized. Everyone wants clean water for their family or to not have sewage coming up in the streets as it’s happening here [South Florida] sometimes. So these are all issues that can bring people together. I hope I can be that voice to help create unity. But that doesn’t mean that those other voices are not important. I think we are all important. I think this is all about finding a place and create the political will, that we need to live differently. It is not some sacrifice. It is this better way of living…


… You spoke about the idea of redefining abundance. Is that what you’re referring to?


Absolutely. I think if we can think about abundance as healthy marine life, and healthy seagrass, and clean water instead of how many fish can I grab out of Biscayne Bay. This is the new way we have to think about abundance.


There is one more aspect about how to drive change through something called, science diplomacy. Can you tell us a bit about this?


So I really learned about that in that last chapter on the venomous cone snails, when I spend time with Mandë Holford, the biochemist. What I found fascinating about her is that she realized that science is not enough. We have the science we need. We know what’s going on with climate change, and that’s why my book is part humanities, part science. You have to put it together. One or the other is not enough.

Mandë really realized this, not only doing her cone snail work but she does all kinds of other work: To draw young girls into science. To work on anti-colonial science. She works a lot in the Coral Triangle and these islands around Indonesia nearby where she tries to make sure scientists listen to Indigenous knowledge and wisdom, all of those things.

But another important point of it is helping scientists be at the table when these things are discussed. Why don’t more scientists run for office? The people that that run for office often tend to be lawyers—or activists who became politicians because they got so frustrated. Why wouldn’t more scientists run for office when they know the stakes now? So that’s all the work she’s trying to do which I think is really neat.

— End —

The book is called The Sound of the Sea, Seashells and the fate of the oceans. You can learn more about Cynthia and her work going to

Cynthia presenting her book at the Miami Book Fair 2021


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