Who could turn down a chance to dive on a famous treasure ship? Dave Thomas watched his dad stow diving gear aboard their 43 foot boat, hornet. The Hornet, rigged for commercial underwater salvage work, was headed for duty in Arguello Bay where Lawrence Thomas and tow partners have a state franchise to salvage brass, copper and money from seven destroyers. On a routine dive in the area designated to them, they had discovered the Yankee Blade, lost off the Southern California coast in 1954. This combination sail and side-wheeler carried over $153,000 in gold aboard.
Unfortunately Dave, who is an enthusiastic newcomer to the sport of diving, had to turn down the exciting prospect of exploring the Yankee Blade and return to important projects of his own in Morro By. It was his own fault. No one had asked him to put that inconsequential box of shells in this front yard six years ago. Dave had wanted to earn a little spending money. Deciding that anything would be better than the traditional lemonade stand, he put his best shells forward and added a “for sale” sign. Business grew at an alarming rate. Tourists bought beautiful shells as souvenirs. Teachers bought shell displays to show the children. Children bought shells to show the teachers. Since it soon became impossible to keep enough shells displayed on boxes in the yard, his father built him a shed as a sales room. Now the problem became that of gathering enough shells to keep up with the demand, Dave decided to add imported shells to his stock. This meant regular trips north to San Francisco to pick up shipments from The Philippines, Australia, Hong Kong, and Mexico.
Enough merchandise arrived to give most of us a mild case of shell shock. Dave now needed a larger storage area and more room to display his collections. He and Lawrence built the present 12x18 display shop and utilized another larger building as shell lab and warehouse. Needing inexpensive shelving in a hurry, Dave utilized materials at hand. He stacked oyster seed boxes along the walls to house the shells ready for display. Since seeds are imported from Japan at regular intervals to replenish oyster beds at Morro Bay, Dave can always count on having plenty of boxes.
The shell lab became Dave’s main work area. Here shells are cleaned and prepared for the salesroom. Foreign shipments sometime arrived with pieces of dead sea animals lodged inside shells, and it takes many hours of hard work before they are ready for a collector’s shelf. Expansion of facilities brought about a crisis. Business was just too good. The David Thomas Shell Shop needed more manpower, so Dave persuaded his family to quit their work to join him in this thriving business. Part of another building was soon required to house a rapidly growing family collection of fine local and rare shells. Barnacles, moon snails, abalone, sand dollars, cowries and dog whelks are found in Morro Bay. One very rare specimen is found locally although Dave had been unable to find this fact recorded in any of his books. It is the Spiratropis perverse, a left handed turn shell. Most shells spiral to the right. His parents are especially fond of the cowries and volutes, the aristocrats of the shell family. They already have over 100 varieties of cowries. From the volute family they have a Salmon caroli, one of the twelve such species known to exist among collectors today.
Business is out of bounds again, which should be fair warning to parents of enterprising youngster. Lawrence is busy drawing up plans for a new 40x80 Shell House, and it’s a good thing he doesn’t know this may be just another beginning. Dave purchased two beach lots with is earnings. After what he did to the front yard there’s no telling what he’ll accomplish with two large lots at his disposal.
The success of The Shell Shop is undoubtedly the result of the sincere enthusiasm of its owner. Dave has always been interested in studying about shells and the animals who inhabit them. He has acquired a sizeable technical library on the subject and has a better understanding than many adults interested in the subject. No wonder tourists stop to browse a moment and, instead, find themselves staying to hear more about living marine fossils, deadly cone shells and shrimp with claws of ivory. It was inevitable that the adventurous Thomas family would come to share Dave’s enthusiasm for the sea and its inhabitants. Dave and his sister were born in Ketchikan, Alaska, where their parents fished commercially. They lived along the Oregon coast for a while before settling in Morro Bay. It is an ideal spot for those who like the sea. When Lawrence has time for a day off, he joins divers Ernest Porter and Dean Tyler aboard the Yankee Blade or one of their seven destroyers. As for the Hornet, she may someday be worth her weight in gold- if they’re lucky.
Dave had his own kind of treasure hunting to keep him busy. Perhaps, his search for rare shells will turn out to be even more exciting and rewarding than buried gold.
Dowd, Jean “Junior Fin Fans.” Skin Diver Magazine Jun. 1961:32-33: Print.