Shell collecting combines a love of nature with the fun of treasure hunting. It satisfies the obsession to collect. Its rewards are both beautiful and enduring. It’s also free!
A Victorian-era shell collector 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 a world-renowned experts in conchology. He got started collecting as a boy, while 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 would go on to spend 50 years researching shells for Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institute.
“Shells are where you find them,” Abbott said, “and they’re very seasonal.” Although winter is the best season for beach collecting, he said, 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. (But it’s reputation may have been “enhanced,” Abbott claimed, by some hotels that purchased shells and planted them on the beach so they’d be found by tourists!)
Florida’s Best Beaches for Shelling:
- Sanibel and Captiva Islands are widely considered to be the best shelling beaches 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 on the Gulf Coast offers excellent opportunities for shelling at low tide.
- 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.
- Panama City Beach. 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 shark’s teeth, try Venice Beach, south of Sarasota, and Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island.
Florida Shelling Tips & Tricks:
- Little equipment is needed. 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.
- 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 find 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.
Tips from the Jacksonville Shell Club:
“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.”
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.”
NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the Ocala Star-Banner.