Barbara Myers’ work with the San Diego Natural History Museum began with the Astraea undosa. So did Carole Hertz’s. The two women have worked as volunteers at the museum for more than 30 years and, together, they are the “Shell Ladies.”
On Oct. 28, the women received the Friends of Balboa Park award at the eighth annual Millennium Awards Luncheon. Presented to five park volunteers, the award was created to honor those who have given the best of their time and talent in support of Balboa Park, or one of the institutions in the park.
Myers and Hertz are both originally from New York, although they now live about three blocks away from each other in Clairemont. Their story began when their children were old enough to walk on the sand: Myers began beachcombing at La Jolla Shores, and Hertz searched around North Pacific Beach. While they didn’t know each other, they eventually crossed paths at San Diego Shell Club meetings at the museum.
In the 1970s, Myers and Hertz were both homemakers and had also both become enchanted with a shell that they found during their explorations at La Jolla Shores and Sunset Cliffs beaches, respectively: the wavy turban (Astraea undosa). After heading to the Natural History Museum to learn more about the snail shell, both women took up the curator, Dr. George Radwin, on his offer to volunteer at the museum.
“They had such a wonderful research library and all of the books and journals were available to us,” Myers said. “I learned as much as I could, and when we wanted a journal that wasn’t there, they would order it for us!”
For the Shell Ladies, a hobby has turned into so much more. Their families eventually got involved in their avocation, with Hertz and her husband starting The Festivus, a regular publication that began as a mimeographed newsletter and is now a peer-reviewed journal whose authors are recognized as making important contributions in the field of marine invertebrates. When Myers found a shark egg case at the beach and it hatched in her care, she ended up raising the baby shark in her own aquarium for nine months. After organizing notes she’d taken throughout the endeavor, she got her story published in the newly formed Ocean magazine.
Although they are citizen naturalists with no formal training in science, both women have many scientific publications to their credit. Myers has described more than 25 new species of mollusks, while Hertz’s help was enlisted for the definitive work on the family Muricidae (murex shells), written by Radwin and Anthony D’Attillio.
“I don’t know if I could possibly pick a favorite shell after all these year,” Hertz said.
Today, Myers and Hertz continue to volunteer at the museum on Mondays. Since the museum’s expansion began in 1999, the marine invertebrate collection became disorganized and families were not maintained. After the re-opening in 2001, the Shell Ladies have dedicated their time to restoring the collection back to its original condition and organizing it into the proper taxonomic order.
“Carole (Hertz) and I work together on the re-organizing so that if one of us messes up, the other can point it out,” Myers said. “The fact that we got an award is so great because we never expected it. We just loved what we were doing and we still do.”