George Melissas is the king of curio. He reigns over an empire built on coral colonies, scallop shells, alligator heads, and shark jaws. He's made a small fortune on starfish dyed blue, crabs mounted to coconuts, seashell wind chimes, and other nautical tidbits sold in bulk.

His home in the secluded, luxurious Gulf Coast town of Boca Grande — where there's a $5 toll to cross the one causeway in and out of town — is easy to recognize. Down the quiet, breezy side street a few hundred yards from the beach, it's the home with a long display of maroon coral, giant clams, assorted shells, and a well-placed vintage anchor. The electric gate featuring a Greek key pattern gives way to another, waist-high stack of coral, stone, and shells that surrounds a front-yard pool. At the bottom of the front porch, near the candy-apple-red Corvette, is an even larger display of coral and shells, a mermaid statue topping this one.

Melissas is the founder and CEO of Shell Horizons, a Clearwater-based company that claims on its website to be the "largest wholesaler of seashells and seashell products." The balding 57-year-old, who looks like a slightly taller, slightly slimmer Danny DeVito, with a thin gray mustache, says he's not sure if he's actually the largest wholesaler; it just sounds good.

Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation shows off a piece of coral.
Tim Grollimund
Ken Nedimyer of the Coral Restoration Foundation shows off a piece of coral.
Divers check on corals that were transplanted from a nursery to the Florida Reef Tract.
Tim Grollimund
Divers check on corals that were transplanted from a nursery to the Florida Reef Tract.

A proclivity for profiting from the sea lingers in his genetic composition.

"My grandparents were in the sponge industry in Greece," he says, leaning over his kitchen counter. He's wearing striped shorts, a button-up tan shirt, and a slender black coral necklace with an expensive-looking sheen. "They came here from Greece [in the early 1900s], and they came here because there was a blight on sponges in the Mediterranean at the time. It was like a red tide."

Before the advent of cheap synthetic materials, people used natural sponges harvested from the sea, and sales of them were good. The Mediterranean blight was like a mini potato famine in the sense that it drove a tight-knit ethnic community to the shores of Florida's Gulf Coast to chase sponges. Scuba gear had yet to be invented; divers wore cumbersome lead boots and metal helmets. "Both my grandfathers had the bends and died of the bends," Melissas says. "They gave their life to the sea."

This risk-taking, moneymaking, fresh-off-the-boat subculture inspired Hollywood films such as 1953's Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, featuring Robert Wagner as "Mike Petrakis," the elder, sexier half of a Greek father-son sponge-diving team in Florida. An uncle of Melissas's starred in the film.

As a kid, Melissas worked in warehouses around Tarpon Springs, baling bundles of sponges and packing them in burlap bags to be shipped around the world. "Greeks work; they don't collect welfare," he barks. "It wasn't a fun job, but it was something that was family."

He discovered that the occasional oyster shell on the side of a sponge could be plucked, cleaned, and sold for a few cents to the tourists who frequented restaurants owned by his family. By the time he was a teenager, Melissas was buying crates of curios at wholesale prices from a shop in Fort Myers. He fashioned the shells into trinkets and centerpieces to sell at a restaurant where he waited tables.

Tired of dealing with a middleman, Melissas decided at age 17 to go directly to the source. It was a risky move. He blew his life savings on a plane ticket to the Philippines, much to his father's dismay. "We're trying to get away from what your grandfathers did and the stinking packaging houses. Who's gonna buy shells?" he recalls his dad lamenting.

The wholesaler in the Philippines expected to meet a 50-year-old businessman, not a brash teenager running a shop in his parents' back yard with barely enough money to make it back to the States. This young-and-dumb approach struck a chord of sympathy, compelling the wholesaler to give Melissas a batch of Pacific shells and 90 days to sell what he could.

Dead sea life has treated Melissas well in the four decades since that inaugural trip. He's well-off and well-traveled and says he owns a bone-fishing club in the Bahamas and has a partnership with a factory in the Philippines.

Melissas doesn't conceal his disdain for his critics. He launches into tirades against Tony Cruz, a Filipino news correspondent who has accused Melissas of smuggling coral from the Philippines; and Anna Oposa, a Filipina activist who went before the Philippines Senate in 2011 to levy allegations that Shell Horizons had poached protected coral from the country's waters. Melissas says they are "totally false" allegations based on outdated, 1970s pictures of free divers dismantling a reef that were once posted on his website. He stresses that he has never been arrested for smuggling or any illegal activity in the Philippines.

"For environmentalists, it's broccoli or nothing," he says. "The environmentalists are concerned about everything. They're weirder than Michael Jackson."

Melissas insists there's plenty of coral left in the sea and that scientists are exaggerating news of reef decline to secure funding. "Take the square footage of all the coral in the world and it's three times the size of the United States," he says. (The World Resource Institute, meanwhile, estimates the total area covered by coral reefs is "roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom.") If coral is so rare, Melissas asks, why is he paying the same price for it that he was paying in the 1980s?

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19 comments
xxxriainxxx
xxxriainxxx

George Melissas is a liar and a thief and wholesale plunderer of Philippine corals, taking advantage of the weak enforcement of laws in a country like the Philippines. Millions of poor Filipinos depend on fishing in the Philippines for their livelihood and for their own daily sustenance and fish catches are dwindling no thanks to Shell Horizons and operations like theirs.

Anna
Anna

Below is part of this article which i think the writer is confused him or herself and shows little knowledge about corals.. This makes sense to what i am saying that CLEAN SEA WATER as in the South Pacific is best for coral growth and Polluted sea waters in Florida or USA kills or destroys corals.. When it rains and all the rivers runs down to the sea with all the land development wastes and polluted the sea and kills these coral animals...

In simple terms, the corals that people took out of the reefs is a finished product that these millions of coral animals built, In clean sea water, when you break the coral, every single broken pcs of coral that is dropped back into the clean sea will become a new coral because the coral animals will continue to built it again. In clean sea in the South Pacific it can only take 6 - 10 months for corals to grow from 1" to 12" for the fast growing species.

" Most people don't even know coral is an animal. But corals hunt, eat, poop, and have sex. They even have huge orgies. For many species, once a year, shortly after sunset on the night of a full moon, masses of coral simultaneously release sacs of reproductive cells, turning the water into a cloudy primordial soup of sperm and eggs."

From the above, it shows the writer of this article has done no reseach in where these corals were taken from. It also shows the writer is only doing it for economical reasons. Maybe they might financial benefits from other buyers who this new trade market is affecting their business...

Kibba
Kibba

It doesn't sound so bad if the reefs are only being decimated. That is, reduced by 10%.

Could it possibly be worse than the headline suggests?

Anna
Anna

You people do not understand,,, we have some so called scientists who sits in their locked offices and acts like they knew everything happening around the world. There has been enough evidence that sea pollution is the greatest causes of coral depletion and death. 80% of Floridas coral reef were destroyed by Human pollution of the sea.. For the South Pacific where these corals came from do not have the sea pollution that you have in Florida and other US states..

Let me educate this so scientist that wrote this un reseached piece of nonsense.. Take the sea from Miami reefs and put it in a tank and put corals inside to grow.. At the same time take the coral from the harvested reefs in the South Pacific and put into a tank to grow.. There is a difference in the sea pollution vs clean sea harvesting of corals.

It is a Scientific Knowledge and Local knowledge that the actual harvesting or breaking of the corals will help the coral to multiply.. every single broken pcs of coral will be come a new coral.. Coral is like grass, the more you harvest it or break it, the more it will grow..

The point i am making is clean sea is vital for coral growth and breaking of the coral will help for more corals to grow... Polluted sea water caused by Human developments is the greatest killer of the coral reefs..

Get you facts right and clean up your backyard before telling others what to do.

Give the South Pacific.

Nancy
Nancy

Oh shit, you should be a "REAL" scientist

Bebep
Bebep

I don't think breaking coral and selling it dried up in a store is helping anything.

And yeah, no shit that pollution is bad for sea life. Thanks for the facts scientist.

What the hell does pollution have to do with taking coral out of the water and selling it dead in a store? Great argument you got going on.

Anna
Anna

People in the South Pacific with clean sea waters took corals because people in USA want them...people in USA wants them in their homes, offices. What then is your problem?.. Do little economics law of demand and supply...what right then you have on other people wanting to do with their lifes?.. Should we stop you eating meat because you are contributing to killing animals?? the whole world is going crazy..

Carol Sobieski
Carol Sobieski

How stupid are some people to ruin the undersea plant life? I'm not an expert in this area but even I know you don't take any of that stuff away with you.

Anna
Anna

Human development, cites and inland infrastructures, mining etc.. All the activities and wastes washed down into the ocean are the greatest contribution to the undersea life..

Clean sea water will always makes corals grow..

Anna
Anna

You all hypocrites...how many years have the so called first world have contributed to the destruction of the marine life.. how many of your human wastes have ended up in the ocean?..all your inland developments wasted ended up in ocean destroying marine life..

Now you are blaming a few third world countries for destroying your reefs... common...it might be a few trinkets for you rich people for the developing countries, it money making a difference in the peoples lifes.

Marilyn Schulz
Marilyn Schulz

This is so reflective of the insanity of the present.. We don't do this dumb shit

Anna
Anna

You read further in the article and you will see the truth...80% of the coral reefs in Florida were destroyed by Human Development.it does not say commercial harvesting...do not blame those half way around the world for you what you have contributed to destroy.. The south pacific ocean has no big cites and land development as you do ... corals will always live forever and ever...

The wise one.
The wise one.

Id rather pay top money for the Beheaded person's heads that are going around the planet doing this horrific acts! It'd be a GREAT conversation piece!!!

Anna
Anna

so the coral is more important that a human life...you must be a sick one and should be thrown to the sharks for a feed

d2xyz
d2xyz

Worry about your own backyard. The proposed dredging at the port of miami is about to kill the octocoral on the reef off of miami beach for the vague prospect of increased shipping traffic. The thinking is that there are too many to relocate, so we'll kill them all.

aaron b
aaron b

Ah. That is not true at all. Our company just put in a bid for the massive task of replanting and mitigating the affected coral.

D2xyz
D2xyz

Those would be hard corals my friend. The octocorals are too numerous.

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