One of the most interesting aspects of cruising is that one never knows what is just over the next wave. I have always loved St. Barth, with its pretty harbor and sophisticated shopping, but nothing prepared me for one of the most fascinating museums in the world – The Inter Oceans Museum in Corossol. Facing the Caribbean Sea, founder Ingenu Margras, 86, has spent his entire life collecting shells and sand from over the world, building boats and model boats, and living a rich life involved with his large family and the sea.
The museum houses some 4,000 varieties of seashells, labeled and encased in glass. Margras politely informs me that it takes 3,000 to have your museum listed in the famed Museum Book of Paris then humbly mentions that “I just continued collecting because I love doing it.” His shells are from every country, each of the seven seas, and every ocean worldwide.
The science of the shell is known as Conchology – the scientific study of shells of mollusks, a branch of malacology. Conchologists may study animal shells to gain an understanding of the diverse and complex taxonomy of mollusks, or simply appreciate them for their aesthetic value. The group of Mollusc (Mollusaca Phylum), of which the museum has many, is the broadest group of animals after that of the insects. It is estimated that there are some 100,000 species distributed within the oceans of the world.
This incredible hobby began in 1925, when Ingenu was a young boy; coming from a long line of fishermen he would wait for his father’s boat on the beach in front of his family home where he started saving the shells that he picked up. When he was 25, Ingenu took his first trip to Guadeloupe where he met a French collector who taught him how to trade the many shells, which he had cleaned and boxed during his youth, to collectors in other lands. Everyone wanted shells from the Caribbean so he would trade his shells for those from faraway places. This trading of shells became a massive hobby that has turned into the world’s most unique shell museum.
After building his own fishing boat, Pourquoi–Pas (Why Not) he began travelling within the Caribbean and added shells from each island that he visited. He now holds the recognized World Record (see sidebar) for the largest shells in several varieties. He tells me, “I sailed from Puerto Rico to Martinique and from St. Barths to St. Thomas collecting shells. It is a good thing that I did it then because the new laws forbid the selling and shipping of shells. I have not been able to get any in the last four years.”
My personal favorites were what are known as “Old Collectors Shell”; these are shells that have other shells attached to them, as a sort of covering. One such large shell had 15 smaller shells attached to it.
Ingénu enjoys a well deserved retirement today; his son, Ingenu, Jr. lives next to the museum with his family and his daughter in the house where Ingenu was born, just down the street. Ingenu lives above his museum which is filled with models of goélettes, dugouts, dory, and other wooden boats that he has crafted in model form. A picture of the restaurant that the family ran for years hangs in the portion of the museum that has replaced it. Ingenu has received many awards in his life but the one of which he is the proudest is when Keith Daley, of the International Rotary Club came to Corossol to present to Mr. Margras with the club’s highest medal of distinction, “The Paul Harris Fellow.”