It’s easy to understand what is shelling. Here in Sanibel Island and the rest of Southwest Florida, shelling is the act of combing the seashore and beach looking for the perfect seashells. The seashells are then collected, cleaned, and taken back home as a perfect souvenir of your time on the beach.
What is Shelling and Where is the Best Place to Go Looking for Shells?
No two beaches are the same and no two shells are identical. The shells that wash up on the beach one day will be gone the next. That’s part of the allure and attraction to looking for seashells. So, what is shelling? Part luck. Part science. And part magic.
The geography of Sanibel Island makes it the perfect spot to find unique shells. Sanibel is shaped like a dolphin and curves along the coastline. The southern currents help all different kinds of shells wash up on the island’s coastline. The east-west torque of Sanibel’s southern tip also acts like a shovel and scoops up beautiful seashells the Gulf of Mexico brings from all over the world and deposits on the islands’ shores.
Sanibel Island is a short and easy drive from Fort Myers and the Southwest Florida International Airport. It’s connected to the mainland by a causeway over the water. From Sanibel Island, it’s about a 20-minute drive over a short bridge to Captiva Island, another paradise for seashells.
Lighthouse Beach on Sanibel is known for smaller shells. The selection sometimes gets bigger the more you work your way along the coast. If you’re after larger seashells, head to Captiva’s north end. Also check Sanibel’s Blind Pass Beach, or cross the bridge over the pass to Turner Beach on Captiva’s south end.
Looking for shells is so popular; it even has its own special name. If you see someone bent at the waist to pick up a seashell, that posture has been affectionately named the “Sanibel Stoop.” It’s a popular sight to see on the islands and a rite of passage.
Tips for Shelling
Shelling is a big deal here. Locals live by it and some people vacation here each year just to go looking for seashells.
Here are Some Tips for Amateurs to Seasoned Professionals
- The best time to go shelling is early in the morning in the summer during low tide.
- Shelling requires a lot of patience. Keep in mind that you’re not likely to find all the seashells you hope to find on the same beach or the same day.
- Make sure your shells aren’t inhabited. Seashells are made by mollusks, which are live animals. It’s illegal to take any live shells away from beaches in Florida. This includes sand dollars, sea urchins, and starfish. In fact, in the ’80s, the City of Sanibel petitioned the state to outlaw collecting live shells on Sanibel Island. Shelling is also not allowed in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
- Look up the tide. For optimal shelling, get to the beach an hour before to an hour after low tide. For the best chance to find rare seashells, go on your shelling adventure after strong winds or storms. View information on local tide charts, here.
- Learn about seashells. Make sure you know what you’re finding and what you’re looking for. You can check out a guide here, https://sanibel-captiva.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Shells-of-Sanibel-and-Captiva.gif. You can also take your shells to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum for help with identification or check their website at https://www.shellmuseum.org/shell-guide.
- What do the locals know? Different shells can be found on different beaches at different times. Ask the locals and see what shells have recently been found. You never know what they’ll say—or what you might find. The Shell Museum has volunteers called Shell Ambassadors who are expert shellers and will be happy to answer your questions. You may spot one on Sanibel and Captiva beaches wearing a T-shirt that identifies him or her as a Shell Ambassador.
- Consult your Royal Shell playing cards in your welcome packet. The card will tell you what kind of shell you’re looking at and the picture in the center will help you identify them if you spot them on the beach.
- Don’t forget a bag. Since they are reusable and washable, mesh bags are preferred. You can find them at most local shops.
- Be prepared for long days on the beach. Good shelling takes time, and it’s also addicting. Be prepared to spend the whole day going from beach to beach finding the perfect treasures. Also, make sure you wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water, and bring bug spray!
- Clean those seashells. The last thing you want to do is bring home a bag of stinky shells. To clean them, soak the shells in a solution of bleach and water. Make sure the solution is equal parts bleach and water, and don’t soak them in the solution for too long. To give them a nice finish, wipe the shells with baby oil. Make sure you’re extra careful with small and fragile shells.
When is the Best Time to Go Shelling?
Shelling is best after a storm when the ones hidden in the water are tossed ashore. Low tide is also ideal, as it leaves more shells exposed. Tides play a big role in shelling. Pay attention to full and new moons, when tides are at their highest and lowest levels. Shelling should be good then, too.
How Do I Go Shelling?
If you want to go shelling, there are a few things you must bring with you.
You’ll need a bucket, plastic or mesh bag and a scoop. Wear beach-appropriate shoes and shuffle your feet to expose seashells partially hidden in the sand.
Shells also come in two varieties.
The gastropod wears a single shell. Species include whelks and conchs.
Bivalves—clams, cockles and scallops—also have only one shell, but it contains two hinged parts called ‘valves’.
An empty shell was made by a mollusk, the animal that used to call the shell home.
Mollusks grow their shells at the aperture (gastropods) or at the margins (bivalves). This means that when the animal grows, their shells develop with them. Special glands also create color pigments before new layers of shell harden, giving off the intricate patterns and color combinations we all know and love.
What do Mollusks Do?
Mollusks are very beneficial to the environment. They help keep the sand in place and restock it as they’re crushed by waves and other forces. They also become food for fish and birds or homes for other small animals. Additionally, as certain kinds of mollusks scavenge and filter, they help clean the water.
History of Shelling
Shell history here can remind people of where they’re from, too.
For many people around the world, they are woven into cultures and religions. Or shells make up a place’s very foundation. In fact, Sanibel Island and Captiva Island are made from seashells. The Calusa or “Shell Indians” who lived in the area thousands of years ago used shells as jewelry, tools, and even made shell mounds, which still form the highest elevations of some Florida islands. Sanibel Island has a shell festival each year to honor these precious treasures.
What Should I Do with My Shells?
After you’ve spent hours searching for the perfect seashells, why not do something to display them? You can gently place them in jars and bowls and place them around your home. Or you can get crafty.
- Try making jewelry with your shells
- Make gorgeous shell lights
- Make shell skewers for dinner parties
- Make shell animals with the kids
- Make shell hair clips
- Visit the Sanibel Community House on Mondays and learn how to make crafts with your shells! Classes start promptly at 10 a.m. Class sizes are limited and attendance is on a first-come-first-served basis.
Royal Shell Rentals near the Best Shelling Beaches
If you want to answer the question, ‘what is shelling?’ for yourself, Royal Shell has rentals throughout Sanibel and Captiva Islands. We also have options for Fort Myers vacation rentals and Cape Coral vacation rentals, just two of the cities located nearby. If you are looking for a rental home on the beach, we have plenty of choices. Feel free to browse our rental homes on our website, or give our Vacation Planning Advisors a call. Helping you plan your dream vacation is what we love doing the most!
Let us know what special shell treasures you find in the comments or send us a picture on our Facebook page!