Do you remember the excitement and hours spent hunting for shells as kids? When you were unable to resist all of those beautiful colours and textures? When your bucket was overflowing with treasures? Well if you head to Florida’s Gulf Coast you can indulge in this popular pastime once again.
The islands of Sanibel and Captiva are world renowned as hunting grounds for interesting shells. The islands are literally made of shells washed in by the Gulf from the Caribbean and southern seas. When locals dig their gardens they find conchs, whelks, scallops and clam shells!
Sanibel Island doesn’t sit geographically straight like many of the other islands here. Its southern tip twists around and acts like a sort of scoop, which collects the shells as they are brought in by the tides.
The Sanibel Stoop
Everyone who visits these islands is drawn to the shells. It’s a common sight to see families hunched over on the beaches looking for treasures. In fact this look is so common that it’s been nick-named the Sanibel Stoop!
All of the beaches on the Gulf side of the islands are great for shelling. These include Gulf Side Park, Bowman’s Beach, Lighthouse Beach and Turner and Captive beaches on Captiva Island.
When to shell
The best time to collect shells is when the tide goes out as many more are exposed. Also during low spring tides when there are full or new moons and after a gulf storm. This is when the seas will have driven lots more shells up onto the beach.
What to take
You will need something to collect your shells in. Traditionally this was a beach bucket but it could be a net, container or bag. Wear shoes so that you can comfortably shuffle to disturb partially covered gems.
What you’ll find
At the lighthouse end of the islands you’ll normally find the smaller varieties of shells. Larger ones can be found at the Captiva/North Captiva end. Expect to find conch, Junonia, Lightning Whelk, Cockle, Scallops, Murex, Tulip, Olive and Coquina to add to your collection.
What are shells?
The empty shells you find washed up on the beaches were once the homes of mollusks. There are two basic kinds: the single shell like a conch and the bihalves which have two sides that are hinged together. Clams and scallops come into this category.
Mollusks are soft tissue animals that secrete a liquid that forms their shell. It hardens over time and grows along with the creature it houses. The glands of the mollusk create the colour pigments before the shells harden, which makes them attractive and varied in colour.
It’s against the law to take away shells with creatures still inside even if they’re dead. You cannot take sand dollars, sea urchins or star fish away either.