Just two weeks after debuting its sparkling new $6 million aquarium expansion in March, Sanibel’s nonprofit Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum had to close its doors as the world grappled with COVID-19. Now open again with special safety practices, the museum is launching a Re-Re-Opening of “Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks.”

“We’re pushing the reset button,” said Dorrie Hipschman, executive director. “We poured our hearts into this incredible new experience, shutting down for months to build special aquariums for living animals. We were so proud to debut it in March – and then everything just stopped.”

Now that visitors are beginning to return to Sanibel – indisputably The Shelling Capital of the World – the museum is ready to enthrall them.

It’s the only place in the world to see a living Junonia – a rare, highly prized species for shell collectors. Its renowned gallery of rare and record-breaking shells from around the world is awe-inspiring.

And the museum’s new experience sharpens the focus on mollusks, the live animals that create those stunning shells prized by beachgoers and collectors alike. Beyond Shells: The Mysterious World of Mollusks consists of 11 aquariums ranging in size from 100 to 900 gallons, which are home to giant clams, gastropods and a very social Giant Pacific Octopus.

Two 15-foot-long touch pools let young visitors get their hands wet as they explore the fascinating world of mollusks, furthering the museum’s educational efforts that typically reach thousands of schoolchildren each year.

Interactive experiences reveal fascinating hidden worlds behind these species. For instance, the giant Pacific octopus, is a mollusk, too, related to scallops, oysters, snails and slugs – it’s just seen its shell disappear over millions of years of evolution.

The museum has faced the new post-COVID reality head-on, committed to providing a safe experience. Its leaders have taken

the “SanCap Safe” pledge, embracing best practices compiled by the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce to make health and wellness a priority.

The entire museum is deep-cleaned before opening and after closing, and disinfected thoroughly at midday. There’s plenty of room for social distancing, with capacity limited to 50 percent. Masks are required and available for purchase on site if you forget to bring one; hand-washing stations have been added; transactions are cashless.

Additionally, guests can now choose to purchase their tickets online or by phone and reserve a morning or afternoon slot to visit the museum and ensure their immediate entry upon arrival. (Tickets are always also available day of visit at the door.) To purchase tickets, call the museum at 239-395-2233 or go to bit.ly/3e5YyHf.

For a value-added experience, the museum’s educators offer special daily programming outdoors, and every guest receives a shell crafting kit to take home.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $23.95 for adults (18 and older), $21.95 for seniors, $14.95 youth (12 to 17) and students with their ID, $8.95 for children (5 to 11) and free to children under 5 and active military. Visitors who bike to the museum receive $1 off admission.

The expansion comes as the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum celebrates its 25th anniversary, having welcomed more than 1 million visitors to date. The nonprofit museum is an integral part of Sanibel Island, a curving Gulf of Mexico barrier island that’s home to more than 400 species of shells. Sanibel is known worldwide for its efforts to protect that natural resource, and today local, county and state laws prohibit the taking of live animals in their shells.

The museum is active on social media. Follow on Twitter (@shellmuseum), Instagram (@shellmuseum), and Facebook (/shellmuseum).

About the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the only museum in the United States devoted solely to shells and the living mollusks that create them. Opened in 1995, its mission is to connect people to the natural world through their love of shells. Extensive collections, programs, and expertise inspire learning, support scientific research, and tell the story of mollusks. A world-renowned malacologist, highly trained marine biologists, environmental educators, and passionate volunteers offer visitors from around the world a wealth of knowledge about the scientific, cultural, historical, and culinary importance of shells. The museum is the leading authority on Sanibel and Captiva shells, with exhibits that include the rare junonias, fig snails, pen shells and more. It also displays some of the largest shells in the world, including the goliath conch, lightning whelk, Atlantic trumpet triton and horse conch. The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a registered 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.