For millennia mankind has been entranced by the seashell’s delicacy, elegance, symmetry, and the mystery of how such fragile beings endure the relentless lashing by sand and sea. Shells have been used for jewelry, commerce and decoration yet still retain a near mystical allure.
The chances of scoring good shells increase after a storm, at low tide and on deserted beaches. Following are some southern places that meet those criteria by delivering excellent samples from the sea. But be sure to carefully check intact shells to ensure the owner is not in residence.
Because long-protected stretches of the Outer Banks lie close to the Gulf Stream, they yield to exceptional beach combing. At North Point, the bounty includes olives, baby’s ears, petite coquinas, cowry helmets and North Carolina’s state shell, the Scotch bonnet. South Point is a good place to find sand dollars. Mornings after a storm, especially nor’easters, are the most productive. Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum has an extensive shell display with no exertion required. Tired of shells? Try digging for Blackbeard’s gold rumored to be buried on the island.
Where to Dock: The Anchorage Inn & Marina
Although other Georgia barrier islands offer great shelling, Cumberland’s northern end is accessible only by boat and is less picked over. In addition to the knobbed whelk or conch (Georgia’s state shell), the island is scattered with ark shells, moon snails, heart cockles and fossilized shark teeth. The best shells wash ashore at Dungeness Beach, site of the ruins of a 59-room Carnegie mansion from the 1800s. Collecting a bucket of sand dollars might make you feel robber-baron rich. For the best finds, anchor out and search under moonlight.
Where to Dock: Greyfield Inn
The Ten Thousand Islands, a cluster of tiny, mostly uninhabited islands just south of Marco Island, are accessible only by boat. With ocean currents flowing past, jewel box and alphabet cone shells lay intact on isolated islands. The highly coveted Junonia, a twisted cone shape with markings like a giraffe’s spots, is one of the rarest shells. Junonia snails live on the ocean floor; when it dies, its shell is more likely to stay buried than wash the 60 to 150 feet to shore. Here visitors also see evidence of Native American habitation from 3,500 years ago when the Calusa people created large shell mounds.
Where to Dock: Port of the Islands Marina (Naples)
The shape of Marco Island traps the current and delivers shells aplenty to shore. Except for the large Lions Paw, most of the shells on Sanibel Island are found here. Tigertail Beach is known for conch, calico scallops, limpets, starfish and lightning whelks. Sand Dollar Spit is aptly named for its abundance of sand dollars. At the island’s southern edge, South Marco Beach has a wider selection.
Where to Dock: Esplanade Marina or Marco Island Marina
It’s not that more shells live and grow near Sanibel, it’s that they wash up more easily. Because the sands meet the water at a 90-degree angle from the mainland, the water flushes downward, leaving behind a treasure of shells. The island is so popular with shellers it’s picked clean by noon. Go north almost to Captiva Island to Bowman’s Beach for the best chances of finding coquinas, scallops, whelks and sand dollars. Captiva has abundant beach space where many of the same gorgeous shells wash up. A must-stop is the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum (undergoing post-Ian renovations). The museum has a Southwest Florida Shell Guide with photos and descriptions of 400+ mollusks.
Where to Dock: Sanibel Marina
Shelling at Honeymoon Island’s four miles of beaches is especially rewarding on the sand spit. Over the past four decades, the spit has expanded from a few bars to two miles of pristine beach. It’s a peaceful place to lie on the sand and recover after a day stooping for treasures, but be careful not to disturb nesting osprey, least terns and snowy plovers. Herons, egrets, tortoises and more feed in the waters surrounding the park.
Where to Dock: Marker 1 Marina
A two-state, 160-mile park, Gulf Islands National Seashore is a place of myriad wild riches — blue and green waters, sparkling beaches, and fertile coastal marshes. Its 13 areas include historic forts, shaded picnic areas, trails and lovely beaches. Prehistoric shell middens prove beachcombing this area has always been rewarding. Opal Beach, one of the park’s great treasures, is a shelling favorite. In addition to combing bittersweets, ceriths, common nutmegs and lucinas on the beach, a special treasure is exclusive to the park — egg-shaped hurricane balls. During big storms, wave action twists seaweed, straw and palmetto grass around a shell or small stone to form tight balls and then tosses them onto the beaches.
Located three miles south of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island is a well-known designated bird sanctuary, but its clear blue water and white sand also make it a perfect shelling site. After a storm, lovely finds such as the elusive sun dial will be scattered on the seven miles of seashore. Indian Shell Mound Park, a well-preserved archaeological site, is on the island’s north shore. The shell middens dating from 1,100 to 1,550 A.D. were visited for centuries by natives who roasted oysters and fished in the Little Dauphin Island Sound. The 11 acres of subtropical natural wonder represent a botanical treasure not seen on other Gulf barrier islands.
Where to Dock: Dauphin Island Marina
Previously a working ranch, the island is now a wildlife management area. Public access is only allowed below the mean high tide line where shelling and beach combing are best. Every visit to Saint Jo is different — tides and currents wash fresh sand and new shells such as sand dollars, shark eyes, and rippled lightning whelks ashore. After dark, phosphorescent plankton are visible in the tide pools.
For the best shelling in Texas, head for Padre where a convergence of ocean currents washes up millions of little jewels — shells of unique shapes, sizes and colors. On Little Shell Beach, 25 miles south Corpus Christi, currents from the north generally deposit smaller shells. A few miles farther is Big Shell Beach where larger specimens wash ashore. The area is plentiful with driftwood and ship debris as well as sea beans or drift seeds that travel north from the Caribbean. Per National Park Service regulations, found items must fit in a five-gallon bucket. Failed to snag the elusive perfect specimen? The Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers has the largest collection of shells for sale in Florida.
Keewaydin provides a unique opportunity to experience unspoiled nature in an immersive environment. It’s an important sanctuary and breeding ground for wildlife and a vital nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles. Gentle waves and soft sands create the perfect setting for young children to search for shells and for families to understand our delicate ecosystem and the importance of conservation.
North Ft. Myers, FL
This entertainment complex provides visitors a place to play, shop and eat. A huge store is filled with shells, a nature park, Christmas shop and renovated game room. Rain or shine, indoor and outdoor activities provide hours of family activities.
Sanibel Island, FL
The museum has lots of children’s activities. At the twice-daily Keeper Chats, kids can hold mollusks and learn about them from educators at the Touch Pools. Also enjoy popping up through a viewing bubble in a red mangrove ecosystem, and much more.
Corpus Christi, TX
Experience everything from thrilling three- and six-story waterslides to the Gulf Stream, a winding lazy river made for relaxing. Captain Kid’s Cove gives the little ones a stimulating atmosphere including a kid-sized aircraft carrier, the USS Dusty, complete with cannons and waterslides.