On a recent morning at Cedar Key, the thrill of discovery and the simple beauty of seashells bridged the gap between four generations. For the space of a single morning, L.J. Springer, her daughter and great granddaughter shared a common goal–finding a perfect specimen of Florida’s fighting conch.
The enduring fascination of shell collecting may come from the variety of ways it attracts its fans. Shell collecting combines a love of nature with the fun of treasure hunting, and it satisfies the obsession to collect. Its rewards are both beautiful and enduring. Besides which, it’s free.
A Victorian-era shell collector once wrote: “Shells are at once the attraction of the untutored savage, the delight of the refined artist, the wonder of the philosophic zoologist, and the most valued treasures of the geologist.”
“Shell collecting goes way back. Ever since man dropped out of a tree or came out of a cave, he’s always sought for shells and used them for money or decoration,” said the late Dr. R. Tucker Abbot, who was once the Director of Sanibel’s Shell Museum and one of the country’s leading experts in conchology.
Abbott wrote 40 books on shell collecting, including Kingdom of the Seashell and several field guides. He got started collecting as a boy, when he was visiting family in Bermuda.
“I saw elderly gentlemen earning a living playing with crabs and shrimp and I said, ‘Boy that’s the thing I’d like to do.'” He spent 50 years researching shells for Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute.
The diversity of Florida’s beaches provide a wealth of shelling opportunities, from scuba diving in the lower Keys to beachcombing in the panhandle.
“Shells are where you find them,” Abbott said, “and they’re very seasonal.” Although winter is the best season for beach collecting, you’ll increase your chances of finding good shells by hunting at low tide and after storms.
In general, Florida’s Gulf Coast is better than the Atlantic, Abbott said. The gulf tends to be more shallow and less susceptible to erosion. Also, the heavy traffic (not to mention car oil) on beaches like Daytona create an inhospitable environment for mollusks.
Sanibel and Captiva Islands are considered the undisputed best location in the state for shell collecting. Ironically, though, in an effort to maintain its reputation, Abbott alleged that some Sanibel hotels purchase shells and plant them on the beach so they’ll be found by tourists.
Abbott said the beaches around Tampa and St. Petersburg “used to be excellent until people starting polluting the joint. But now they are cleaning it up and I understand scallops are coming back.”
Shell collecting has little adverse affect on the environment, Abbott claimed. “The amount of collecting that is done is negligible unless commercial people are coming in and dredging up the bottoms,” he said.
“I do a lot of my shelling at the Mayport Naval Station [in Jacksonville], but of course you have to get access,” said Bill Frank, the editor of Shell-O-Gram, the newsletter for the Jacksonville Shell Club. “But another good location not too far from here is Cumberland Island National Seashore.”
“Our club periodically travels to Cedar Key, and it’s quite good. But unless you have a boat you’re somewhat limited,” Frank said. “We often go in late November, when you get one of lowest tides in the year and you can walk for miles on sand bars.”
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The club also travels to the Panhandle where they visit commercial scallop fishing operations, which net ornamental shells in addition to the scallops.
Frank began collecting shells when he was stationed in Okinawa in 1976, and his collection now numbers about 1,000 lots. A lot is a collection of shells from a single location. “There’s such a diversity out there, and they’re all so pretty,” Frank says. “Not only that, when you collect stamps you sit in a room and put them in an album, but with shell collecting you get to travel out in the outdoors.”
Florida’s Best Beaches for Shelling:
Sanibel and Captiva Islands are widely considered to be the best shelling locations in Florida. No live shells may be taken in Sanibel, but several operations offer package shelling tours out of the restricted areas. Beyond the limits of Sanibel, Lee County allows collectors a daily limit of two live specimens of each species. For information about package tours, contact the Sanibel-Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce: (239) 472-1080.
Cedar Key. The abundance of tide pools around Cedar Key offer excellent possibilities for shelling at low tide. Cedar Key is located about two hours west of Ocala.
Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia. This 18-mile beach just across from Amelia Island is great for shelling, and there are never more than 200 visitors at a time. Among the local shells: sand dollars, great heart cockles, olives, lightning whelks and baby’s ear moon snails. For information about the ferry, call 912-882-4336.
Panama City Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Dr. Abbot said that the beaches around Panama City often rival Sanibel for shelling possibilities. Shell Island is the local favorite, and it must be reached by boat.
Little Talbot Island State Park. Just south of Amelia Island on A1A, this state park has a wide beach that magnifies low tide. More than 50 shell varieties can be found here. Since most beachgoers congregate near the boardwalks, if you walk north you’ll find long stretches of beach to yourself. For information, call (904) 251-2320.
For shark’s teeth, try Venice Beach, south of Sarasota, and Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
Florida Shelling Tips & Tricks:
- Little equipment is needed, but be sure to bring a bag for live specimens. A short-handled rake, or a spade can be useful when digging for shells in the mud. A field guide will help in making identifications.
- To remove the soft part of a live shell, boil the shell for a few minutes. Some collectors also leave shells in their yards and allow ants to clean out the live portion.
- Shells are where you find them, but you’ll increase your chances of success if you visit beaches at low tide and after storms. Shelling at night with a flashlight is also a good way to catch live shells, since that is when live shells often “go for a walk.”
- When you’re ready to progress to serious shell collecting, head on over to JaxShells.org for comprehensives guides to Florida shelling, as well as checklists, scientific guides and other resources.
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum is located at 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road in Sanibel, across from the Ding Darling Wildlife Sanctuary. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For info, call (239) 395-2233.
The Shell Factory in Fort Myers has the largest collection of shells for sale in the state. It’s located on U.S. 41 4 miles north of Fort Myers. Open daily. Phone (239) 995-2141.