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CRITTER: Hawaiian sunrise shells are common, but hard to find

While scuba diving along Kaua‘i’s North Shore at 80 feet deep and one-half mile offshore, I found an area of the seafloor littered with small rocks on the sand.

There was not much marine life in the area, but I did notice a little bivalve scallop that was resting on the sand between two rocks with its shell open. It had bright orange lips, which is very normal for live scallops, but its shell was covered in dull sponges and algae so it was not colorful and I did not even bother to shoot a video clip of it.

Later that day, I was talking to a fellow diver and told him about this inch-long scallop and he was amazed, and then told me I had found a live sunrise shell. Later on that week, I did a second dive off my kayak in the same location and found quite a few of these interesting little shells and left them where they were because it is illegal in Hawai‘i to remove live shells from the ocean.

After finding these drab shells, I started wondering why the sunrise shell was so beautiful when I saw them around the neck of my female friends so I started studying the life cycle of this valuable little creature.

It turns out that my discovery of the sunrise shell colony at 80 feet deep was quite rare because this little scallop, called a Langford’s Pecten usually lives in very deep water from 100 feet deep all the way down to 500 feet deep.

The location of my discovery was outside a well known sunrise shell collecting beach along the North Shore called Lumahai. After my discovery of the Langford’s Pecten colony, I started paying more attention to this small boring shell and I have found colonies of them now as shallow as 40 feet deep on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu north shore.

The north side of each Hawaiian Island has large surf in the winter, and when the live sunrise shell dies out in the deep water the big surf breaks the two halves of the shell apart and tumbles the shell over the sand toward the shore.

This natural cleaning process removes the shell’s algae coating and what is left is a beautiful orange, red or even a green color. As with most sea shells their colors are dependent on where they live, how deep they live and what foods they eat.

After the sunrise shell tumbles over several hundred yards of seafloor it may wash up onto the beach especially after a large storm, then an avid shell collector may find the beautiful pecten on the beach at sunrise, which gives the shell its popular name.

Most of the sunrise shells wash up on the lava reef and get broken into small pieces so finding a whole shell is quite rare.

In old Hawai‘i, only the ruling class of people could wear the sunrise shell as it represented the energy of strength and protection and the sunburst pattern of the shell was similar to our amazing sunrises here in Hawai‘i.

It is only the people on shore that think these shells are beautiful and valuable because the fish out in the sea think they are very boring and have drab colors, and even the sunrise shell itself does not know it has beautiful colors under its outer layer of sponge and algae.

I have a new movie coming out soon called “Live Hawaiian Seashells Out On The Reef” and it features some stunning 4K video of live cowry shells, cone shells, trumpet shells and much more. It took me over 10 years to video most of Hawai‘i’s beautiful live shells and the movie will be free on my YouTube at Underwater2web.


Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to
Source: The Garden Island

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