ALGONA – A seashell expert from Iowa seems an unlikely combination, but one Algona man is just that.
Harlan Wittkopf, a retired Algona attorney and small claims court judge, has been collecting for more nearly 40 years. He has had a condominium on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he spends the months of November and March, for nearly as long.
In that time he has acquired a vast knowledge of seashells and has written more than a dozen books on seashells, including the children’s book, “Alphie Finds The Seashell Alphabet,” which follows the adventures of Alphie, an alphabet cone shell, as he tells about a seashell or topic related to shells with each letter of the alphabet.
Through his work he’s met dignitaries from around the world, has been acclaimed worldwide as a shelling master, and has also become a bestselling seashell author.
His hobby of seashell collecting became more of a second career over the years, he said.
“In Florida, being a bestselling seashell author is a pretty big deal,” said Wittkopf.
His latest project was filming a segment on shelling with Florida Public Television for the children’s show “Curious Kids.”
The show focuses on careers, and stars children asking the questions.
“One of the biggest questions was, ‘How does a lawyer from Iowa become a seashell expert in Florida?'” he said. “It just doesn’t seem likely.”
About a year ago, Wittkopf said, the television station WGCU contacted him about the possibility of filming the television show.
“They wanted it to be the final episode of the season,” he said.
The filming was scheduled for Wittkopf’s stay in November. Several days had to be allotted for the segment because conditions had to be just right to have a successful find of shells.
“We scheduled to do at least two days in November,” he said. “We wanted to do it while I was already going to be there, but I was concerned about the logistics of it. You have factors like the weather, hurricane season and the tide has to be just right or the shells you find won’t be live.”
Wittkopf said the experience was one to remember.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It was very interesting to be a part of it.”
The conditions were perfect for filming, he said, and the entire segment was able to be filmed in just over three hours.
“We had a nice tide, the shells were all live and the waves were coming in,” he said. “And the weather was perfect. We worked with the waves coming in and out. We really had the best of both worlds.”
Wittkopf said the television show drew a crowd of curious onlookers hoping to catch a few seconds on television in the background.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “We drew quite a crowd.”
A portion of the show featured Wittkopf and local children having a seashell spelling bee in which he spelled out words with alphabet shells, which have letters in their markings.
“I got out an I, O, W and A,” he said. “They all saw that right away and said ‘Iowa, that’s where you’re from.'”
Each of the participating children received a copy of Wittkopf’s book and an alphabet shell with the first letter of their first name.
“Now each of those kids will think of Iowa when they see a seashell,” he said.
The special will air in Florida in early March during the Sanibel Shell Fair and is expected to be broadcast nationally and on Iowa Public Television later in the spring or early summer.
“I’ve done lots of talks, written books, been in journals and on radio, but this was my first time on television,” said Wittkopf.