Several dozen fans of the fluted, pink-lined conch shell displayed their pucker power Saturday during Key West’s 58th annual Conch (pronounced “konk”) Shell Blowing Contest in the Florida Keys.
When the “conch honk” concluded, Canadian Alliszon Zaichkowski (pronounced AL iss son Zih KOW ski) of Victoria, British Columbia, was named the women’s division winner.
A French horn player for the Royal Canadian Navy, Zaichkowski impressed the judges by playing excerpts from several melodies including composer Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Zaichkowski, who said she traveled to Key West specifically to compete in the contest, is such a fan of the conch shell that she has one tattooed on her arm.
“I like to think of the conch shell as my travel horn because I can’t bring my French horn everywhere — and you also don’t want to be playing a French horn at the beach,” she said. “So I always just take my conch shell with me and that’s what I play at the beach.
“It’s more my vacation instrument,” she added.
The tradition of blowing a conch shell in the Florida Keys began centuries ago. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging shipwreck cargoes, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the shell.
Today the conch shell remains an enduring symbol of the Florida Keys, and the island chain is often called the Conch Republic.
Contest entrants included men, women, kids and groups, with winners chosen for the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they produced.
The men’s division winner was Vinnie Marturano of Big Pine Key, Florida, who blew an excerpt from composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” embellished with offbeat high-pitched squeals.
The contest was presented by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, founded in 1960 to advocate the preservation of Key West’s culture and historic buildings.