A Tale of Whales, Healing and the Beach Lady

Right whale mother and calf mosaic, done in 2018.

By Lauri deGaris

I am grateful to have known The Beach Lady of American Beach, MaVynne Betsch. I met MaVynne in the late 1990s and knew immediately knew she was a gift from the Universe.

For the past 25 years, I have been leading walking tours for a small cruise line that calls on Amelia Island. I asked MaVynne if she would be interested in sharing her story with ship passengers. If you knew MaVynne, then you know she quickly agreed. MaVynne cherished any opportunity to share the news about American Beach.

MaVynne also loved to share the news about the endangered North Atlantic right whale. MaVynne was a staunch supporter of efforts to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. For many years, scientists with New England Aquarium, studying the North Atlantic right whale, would rent a house on American Beach during calving season. MaVynne became fast friends with all of them. She widely supported their efforts and eventually got a right whale named in her honor. North Atlantic Right Whale #1151 was a calving female who traveled regularly from the Bay of Fundy to Amelia Island. And, it also known as MaVynne the right whale.

Together, MaVynne and I had a great time educating visitors about the natural and cultural history of Amelia Island. MaVynne has since transitioned into a butterfly and forever floats above American Beach. Right whale MaVynne, #1151 is believed to have transitioned into another life as well. She has not been sighted since 2012.

The last year MaVynne the whale was observed, I was diagnosed with cancer. Over the next two years, I battled for my life, with all my will. A large part of my healing regime included solitary walks along the beach. On these walks, I began to notice endless numbers of shells along the water’s edge. The shells began to speak to me; they became articles of contemplation and their beauty inspired me.

Have you ever noticed that the human ear resembles some shells? Both gather vibrations in the air through its outer cavity called the “conch” and direct them through the winding passages of the inner ear, producing sound. This invokes “inner listening.” Who has not held a seashell to their ear to hear the sound of the sea?

On my healing beach walks, I learned how to open myself up to the resonance of mana … the breath of life. The sound of the sea in my ear and the wind caressing my skin and the sand under my feet generated powerful healing and inspiration. And, from that inspiration, I got the idea to create a mosaic made from sea shells in the form of a whale.

Over the next few months, I collected thousands of fossilized oyster shells for my vision. I was very specific about which shells I collected for this project. The vast majority of shells needed to be grey in color and have smooth edges after years of tumbling in the sand. In the winter, when the northeast wind blows hard, large surf deposits shells along the beach and the right shell can be found with ease.

To celebrate my birthday, I invited a few close friends to help create my whale shell mosaic vision. We gathered on American Beach and I drew the outline of a juvenile right whale in the sand. One by one, we filled in the whale with shells. And, when our project was complete, our whale mosaic was 18 feet in length containing thousands of shells. We named the whale mosaic in honor of The Beach Lady of American Beach, MaVynne Betsch.

Beach Lady whale mosaic.

As the sun began to set, we placed a candle in the eye of the whale mosaic and said a prayer for all whales. We roasted oysters over an open fire on the beach while listening to the sounds of the sea. An almost full moon rose over the ocean as I celebrated another journey around the sun. The Beach Lady whale mosaic swam under the dunes of American Beach for about two weeks before the sea reclaimed her.

Several years after creating the whale mosaic on American Beach, the A.L. Lewis Museum at American Beach, Florida opened to the public. I made plans to visit the museum with a friend who participated in the creation of the whale shell mosaic in honor of MaVynne. We entered the museum and to our great surprise found someone had seen our whale mosaic on the beach and photographed it. The photo had been enlarged and was part of the backdrop for The Beach Lady exhibit. We had no idea that anyone had photographed our work, much less incorporated it into MaVynne’s exhibit.

I asked the museum docent who took the picture of the whale mosaic in MaVynne’s exhibit. He said he did. Yunis was a docent and curator for the museum. Yunis went on to tell me he and his granddaughter were walking on American Beach when they stumbled across the whale mosaic. They both fell in love with the whale immediately. They took many photographs of the whale before the tide washed her back to sea.

Yunis told me that he knew right away that the whale mosaic had to be incorporated into The Beach Lady’s exhibit. I was overcome with emotion and began to cry. Yunis was overcome with emotion as well. He was thrilled to finally know who created the whale mosaic.

There are no words to describe how much love and joy I felt seeing my vision connected to The Beach Lady’s exhibit. I can almost hear MaVynne say, “Baby, we are all connected.” And, indeed I do feel connected to The Beach Lady and American Beach. I share the American Beach story on every tour I give and will continue to do so as long as I can.

Right whale mosaic, done in 2017.

In the past decade I have created other shell mosaics on Amelia Island. In 2017, I created the largest whale shell mosaic to date. On the day of the event the weather was perfect. High pressure produced a bright, clear blue sky. The winter sun warmed us just enough to be comfortable on the beach in December with only a light jacket. More than 100 people participated in the project by donating shells and time to help create the 47-foot whale mosaic. The life size whale project took 6 hours from start to finish. By late afternoon, “Amelia” the whale mosaic was complete. At sunset, we placed a shell candle in the center of her eye and prayed for a successful whale calving season. The full moon peeked above the horizon as we howled to the whales in the ocean.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Thanks for a beautiful tribute to a beautiful lady, our impaired whales, and the power of art and the beach. I believe she spelled her name Mavynee (per many references on the Internet and also her progeny, Perry Francis (sp), who spoke about her at the Amelia Island Museum of History last week; why Mavynee changed the spelling of her original name is a fascinating story until its own, and quite political).

Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

Oops, meant to say imperiled whales. Darn that auto-typo!

1 month ago

Such a beautiful tribute! Would love to see a picture of the whale mosaic you created. Are you able to share?

Kathy Blacklock
Active Member
Kathy Blacklock(@blacklock)
1 month ago
Reply to  tamilad

The whale mosaic has been added to the story, along with two more beautiful photos. ~Editors

1 month ago

Wonderful tribute to her and yippee for you! So glad you banished to demon cancer. Here’s to the ocean, art, and connected souls………….