The horse conch, a mean critter that feeds on the delectable meat of the queen conch, is Florida’s state shell, but you’re much more likely to recognize the queen conch. Its curved pink shell symbolizes fun in the sun. Phil and Joan DeFranco, now of Vero Beach, worked as lobstermen when they moved to the Lower Keys from Long Island in the 1970s, but they kept getting conch shells in their lobster traps.
“We wound up with so many shells, we had to buy a shell shop to get rid of them!” Phil says. “And then we went diving to get more and more.”
Q: ”Now the conch is protected, but in those days could you take as many as you could get?”
A: “Twenty a day.”
Q: “Tell me where the conch lives and how you take them.”
A: “They’re usually in 10 to 20 feet of water, on the bottom. They look very much like the bottom because they have growth on their back, just like the surrounding growth.”
Q: “In those words, they can hide…”
A: “They hide by not moving. Most people don’t recognize them.”
Q: “You were telling me they have a foot that they walk with…”
A: “It propels them along the bottom very slowly. They just bump along and if there are things that can be considered predators, they don’t move. When they don’t move, you can’t see them because they blend in so well with the bottom.”
Q: “But you had a way of seeing them.”
A: “We got used to it.”
Q: “You knew where they were or what they looked like…”
A: “Well, we also knew that they were usually inshore of a pile of rocks.”
Q: “When was the season? Was it year round?”
A: “Year round. No off season.”
Q: “They were always there, always available and could you always bring them in?”
A: “Weather permitting!”
Q: “What was the biggest or best conch you ever brought in?”
A: “Probably it was about 14 inches long.”
“It was one that we grew in our canal,” Joan said.
“If a conch had a chip in it, nobody would buy it, so we put it in our own canal,” Phil said. “The canal had a wall of stone so the conch couldn’t climb out. In several weeks in the canal, conchs would grow bigger and bigger than they possibly could in the ocean.”
“They’d get a beautiful color,” Joan said.
“In the canal there was probably more plankton and algae as the food source,” Phil said. “In the canals the conchs really thrived. If it had a chip in it, the chip would mend and then we would take it, and in the way of all conchs, it would wind up on the shelf.”
Q: “The shelf and the dinner table!”
A: “Selling them to tourists.”
Q: “How much would you get for a good queen conch?”
A: “Twelve to 15 dollars.”
Q: “Did you remove the meat from it yourself?”
A: “You freeze the shell overnight and then the meat slides right out.”
Q: “So people who say you have to drill a hole in the shell are wrong?”
A: “You don’t do that. It damages the shell.”
“He made the best conch fritters around,” Joan said. “Any time we had company he had to make the conch fritters for everybody.”
Q: “In a three-year period, you brought in probably 1,000 conchs, so it was a good little business …”
A: “It wasn’t much money making, but it was fun.”
Q: “I thought when you held a conch up to your ear, you would hear the ocean, but I’m holding this milk conch up to my ear and I don’t hear anything.”
A: “The large shells with thin construction sound like roaring, because of the vibrations.”
Q: “So it’s not the ocean.”
A: “No, unfortunately.”
Q: “I bet every tourist who came into your shop …”
A: “They all put them up to their ear.”
Q: “Did you tell them the truth?”
A: “I just let them do it, and took their picture.”
Joan had a close call under water one time, but the couple remembers it differently.
“My wife didn’t have enough weight on her belt, so I put a couple of pounds of weight on,” Phil said. “She went down and picked up a conch and then couldn’t come back up. Luckily, I was looking down and saw her struggling. She wouldn’t let go of the conch, and she didn’t know enough to take off the belt and just drop it. I went down and helped her up.”
“That’s not the way it went,” Joan said. “I had the conch in my hand and was on my way up and he said, here, take this other conch because I see another one down there. When I took his conch that’s when I started to go back down and couldn’t come up!”
Joan and Phil DeFranco are retired in Vero Beach now. They do some shelling on Melbourne beaches and usually stay out of the ocean.
This interview was first heard as a radio segment on Janie Gould’s Floridays series on WQCS/88.9 FM, the NPR member station for the Treasure Coast. To hear other Floridays shows, go to wqcs.org and click on News.