Every morning, before the sun pokes its way to the Gulf on Sanibel Island, a curious collection of creatures stirs. Stooped over, looking down and poking, prodding along the edge of the tide, their earnest work is oddly similar to their morning companions: sandpipers darting along the shore looking for a breakfast of tiny sea mollusks buried in the wet sand. But instead of the soft animal inside, it’s the calcified remains that attract these fervent sea shellers. There is something inherently satisfying in finding an object that delights our sense of beauty and intellect, and seashells do both in spades. Shells are the remains of sea creatures—mollusks—and the size and variety of them are staggering on Sanibel and Captiva. More than 300 species of shells can be found along the beaches of these two barrier islands. There are billions of living shells offshore along Florida’s 80-mile-wide continental shelf, says Kathleen Hoover, a former staff member at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel. Storms in the Gulf propel a fraction of these shells to the shore. Hoover says what makes Sanibel so special for shelling is the barrier island features a gradual slope from the Gulf’s bottom that acts like a ramp. This allows large numbers of shells to roll onto the beach after a sea storm churns them up from their homes in deeper water. And, unlike the jagged bottom and crashing surfs found on the Atlantic side, Sanibel’s gently sloping shore helps shells arrive in pristine shape.
How to Shell
The best time to find shells is at low tide when the waves have retreated enough to reveal what the high tide brought in. Ask your hotel for a tide chart or look one up online to determine low tide for the day. You may find of the best shells will still be under water just at the shore break. Polarized sunglasses can help reduce glare and help you eye your prize before it races back out to sea. A bucket and a scoop are really the only utensils you need to help find and gather your shells. For those new to shelling, bigger always seems better, but expert shellers will tell you not to discount the little guys. Get down and look closely to find the tiny wonders that are just as amazing as their big brothers. Seasoned shellers also agree that less is more. Keep a few prized finds from your visit instead of toting home huge buckets. After all, beach sand is the tide-worn remains of shells. More shells equal more pristine sand to squeeze your toes in.
What Did You Find?
Moon snail shells are common, but very pretty, finds. As the name suggests, the shell is fat and round (like a full moon) and features a graceful, unwinding swirl. The fighting Florida conch bears a pointed star shape to its shell and a lovely, glossy coral color near its opening. Another prized catch among the mountains of small butterfly coquina shells, scallop and mussel shells is the lightning whelk, which looks like a trumpet with a thin, tapered end. Big ones that haven’t been damaged on the way in are always eagerly snagged by the first collector who happens upon it. Other beach treasures include sand dollars, sea urchin skeletons and mermaid purses. The “purses”—leathery rectangles with prongs on each end—are dislodged egg cases laid by skate fish in the Gulf. One of the more perplexing finds for a novice sheller is a white, spongy object that looks like it could be cartilage from a snake. The long coiled specimen is actually an egg case from the lightning whelk, which usually floats freely in the water before the babies hatch out of each segment. The best place to learn about what you have found is at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum in Sanibel. Besides being a place where hundreds of rare and gorgeous shells are displayed, the museum explores the creatures that make the shells and how and where they live in the Gulf.
By law, sea-shell seekers are not allowed to keep a shell that still has a living animal inside. This includes sand dollars, starfish and sea urchins. Beyond depriving the animal to reproduce other animals, the creature will not live for long outside its habitat and is destined to be a smelly reminder of your trip to Sanibel rather than a beautiful one. Sanibel is adamant about this law; shellers caught taking live specimens can be fined hundreds of dollars.
Ready, Set, Shell
Finding a rare Junonia shell with its distinctive glossy cream-colored base flecked with uniform brown spots is one of the greatest finds in Sanibel and Captiva. They are more commonly found in deep water, but rarely on the beach. This would be a drool-worthy addition to any collection, but shelling is more than the finds. Walking with the sea breeze at your back, the smell of the tide and roar of the ocean as you poke along is a deeply contenting exercise for both the mind and body. Sometimes, one of the most satisfying things to do at the end of a long shell walk is to turn your bucket of gems back onto the beach and look forward to doing it again the next day. The expectation of another day is all part of spending a beautiful time in the unique beaches of the Southwest Florida area.