Shelling

Stoop for buried treasure.

Thanks to geography and our east-west orientation the gentle waves catch incoming shells of all shapes, varieties and colors. They arrive daily by the hundreds of thousands, mostly fully intact and ready to be dusted off by seasoned shelling professionals and souvenir scavengers alike. Find horse conchs, calico scallops, banded tulips, starfish, corkscrew-shaped augers, sand dollars, the rare lion's paw and the rarer Junonia shell among hundreds of others. Just keep your eyes on the sand.

Shelling on North Captiva and Cayo Costa

"Novice and serious shell collectors alike can find a treasure trove of colorful seashells on a visit to one of the Fort Myers Sanibel area's outer islands."

My friend and I were eager to spend the better part of a day shelling – enchanted by the beautiful pieces of sculpture created by nature and nurtured by the sea. This enchantment, coupled with curiosity about what we might find, led us to book a trip with Captiva Cruises.

Captiva Cruises
Ospreys swoop on the morning breeze as we wait on the wooden dock for the pontoon boat to pick us up. We and 20 other shelling enthusiasts climb aboard for the 25-minute journey. As we cross Pine Island Sound, our informative guide, Capt. Brian, gives a short history of the area. Approaching North (or Upper) Captiva, we are treated to an unspoiled vista – a wide, white sandy beach backed by wind-buffeted vegetation.

Shell Selection
Stepping onto the sand, we marvel at the swaths of pinks, purples and all shades of brown laid out before us. I found myself choosing olives, tubular shapes with soft spots on a chamois-colored ground, and scallops. My friend, Jacquelyn, chooses starfish, sand dollars and shiny rose petal tellins.

I brought home various shells, including a calico scallop, a lion's paw and a whelk. I also collected a couple of shark's eyes and some corkscrew-shaped augers and prickly tritons.

The Ideal Environment
Many people come to the area for one reason only – the incredible shelling. Fort Myers-Sanibel produces spectacular specimens because the currents bring shells from the Caribbean to local shores. The wide continental shelf provides a gently sloping incline that allows many shells to arrive unscathed. And warm Gulf waters provide ample opportunity for the creatures to reproduce.

You'll find some of the most sought-after shells, such as the crown conch, in the sound, where the different salinity levels mean the mollusk population differs from that found in the Gulf. But, cautions Anne Joffe, owner of She Sells Sea Shells and head of the Sanibel Shell Fair and Show, those who come looking for a particular shell often find everything but that shell. "I always tell people, ‘Don't close your mind – be open to finding everything.’”

Charter Shelling Trips
For the serious shell collector, consider taking a private charter shelling cruise. There are dozens of shelling guides who can help you find the perfect shell on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel. Captain Brian Holaway has been helping folks find the best shelling spots for 20 years.

Every day on the water creates new shelling experiences because of the change in tide or shoreline, Holaway said. He takes great pride in leading both serious and novice shell collectors to remote beaches or flats in search of that one particular shell. Holaway, a certified Florida Master Naturalist, provides information on the wildlife, plants and rich history of the area.

Many experienced shell collectors are often searching for shells to add to their collections.  Most can expect to find lettered olives, lightning whelks, Florida fighting conchs, baby’s ears, worm shells, nauticas, scallops, coquinas and other bivalves. One of the rarest finds – and the shell that keeps many returning - is the brown-speckled Junonia.

The ride to the shore is also full of surprises. Shell enthusiasts watch dolphins swim, enjoy a sunset or capture an osprey diving for dinner.


Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
While there are maybe 50 easily recognizable shells in the area, it’s actually home to 300 shell species. Before you head out, stop in at Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which educates the public about mollusks and their shells. You'll see two movies on mollusks and about 30 exhibits.

The shell museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is the only museum in North America dedicated entirely to shells and has a comprehensive web-based system that allows people the world over to access the museum's collection online.

Shell seekers find treasures

"The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.."

"The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open choiceless as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea." Anne Morrow Lindbergh, "Gift from the Sea"

When Anne Morrow Lindbergh visited Captiva Island and penned her famous book, "Gift From the Sea," in 1955, she wrote: "The beach was covered with beautiful shells and I could not let one go by unnoticed. I couldn't even walk head up looking out to sea, for fear of missing something precious at my feet."

It is much that way today as avid collectors come from all over the world to comb The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel to take advantage of the abundant treasures from the sea. A passion for shelling will soon turn into obsession as the success of a vacation for many is often judged by the number of shells collected!

The area’s famous beaches have been ranked as some of the best in the U.S. for shelling. The shell is celebrated each year at the Annual Sanibel Shell Fair & Show that has been going on for 71 years. The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum has the largest collection of shells in North America. Shops such as She Sells Sea Shells on Sanibel Island and the Shell Factory and Nature Park in North Fort Myers cater to shell collectors and sell crafts to do at home.

With more than 100 barrier and coastal islands adjacent to the Lee County, Florida shoreline, this area is home to 50 miles of sandy white beaches that shelter some of the best shelling in the United States. Tourists and residents alike search the beaches for treasures. Some even set out with flashlights before sunrise to find the best specimens washed ashore. In 2007, more than 2 million visitors from around the world flocked to southwest Florida to sample this shelling paradise.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel yields some 400 species of multi-colored seashells, from the commonplace scallop and clam to the exotic tulips, olives, fragile paper fig shells and the rarest of them all, the brown speckled junonia. Considered a “one in a lifetime" find, stumbling across a junonia will get your photo in the local Sanibel newspaper. Shelling is taken seriously here!

The ideal geography of the area has everything to do with the bounty of shells to be found. Shells from the Caribbean eventually roll up the slightly sloping undersea shelf. The gentle waves keep a majority of shells intact.
Visitors always ask, "Where are the best shelling locations?"

Sanibel Island is widely celebrated for its shelling potential. Even the island’s configuration encourages shelling with its boomerang or shrimp shape that slows down the shells and brings them onto the beach in one piece. While many islands face northwest, Sanibel runs in a more east-west direction, a distinct advantage. A wide plateau of relatively shallow water and sandy bottom adjoins Sanibel on the south side of the island, according to Winston Williams, author of “Florida’s Fabulous Seashells." “This gradual slope of the Gulf of Mexico bottom acts like a ramp where large numbers of shells roll onto the beach, especially when driven by storms from the northwest," says Williams. Such storms are common in December and January when mild cold fronts pass through Florida. He notes that the gentle slope assures that even more shells arrive in undamaged condition.

Often, seashells left behind by sea creatures hide just beneath the surface of the sand where the surf breaks. Many empty shells never make it over this point and can be collected by wading or snorkeling along the surf line or sifting through the bounty of shells regularly deposited by waves. By closely monitoring the feeding habits of shorebirds like terns, one can locate many of the Gulf’s treasures.

More shelling locations: Shelling is actively pursued all along the southwest Florida coastline. It is especially good in less populated areas, like North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands, known for their starfish, conch and sand dollars. Both of these sparsely populated islands are accessible only by private boat or charter. For details on each of the area’s beaches, click here.

To get to some of the more isolated locations and to go with an expert, many visitors seek the help of a shelling guide or charter captain. The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is one of the few places in the world where a person can make a living as a shelling charter captain and the area has many local experts with knowledge of the beaches and best shelling locations. Many local marinas and resorts run shelling charters.

 


When is shelling at its best?
Avid shellers say that anytime is a good time for shelling, as one never knows what will wash ashore. The thrill of the search is part of the allure. Peak shelling season in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area is generally considered to be May through September where it is possible to find 50 to 60 different kinds on a given day. Typical winter cold fronts produce great shelling on the southwest side of many barrier islands with changing tides, strong currents and prime weather conditions constantly changing island formations.


Shelling tips
Shell early morning. Low tide is best.

Avid shellers say that anytime is a good time for shelling, as one never knows what will wash ashore. The thrill of the search is part of the allure. Peak shelling season in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area is generally considered to be May through September where it is possible to find 50 to 60 different kinds on a given day. Typical winter cold fronts produce great shelling on the southwest side of many barrier islands with changing tides, strong currents and prime weather conditions constantly changing island formations.

Be patient! No one area is good all the time and no collection worth viewing was ever found on one outing. Yet there is something innately appealing about shelling that keeps most people coming back time after time, year after year. Morning, evening or midday, shell seekers throughout the islands and mainland coasts of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel assume the famous “Sanibel Stoop" or “Captiva Crouch," position to gather gifts from the sea.


Celebrate the shell!
It is no surprise that shelling enthusiasts gather each year for an annual shell fair that draws visitors from all over the world. One of the most unique events in the country, it began on a porch with just a few islanders and has evolved into today's Annual Sanibel Shell Fair & Show, which takes place at the Sanibel Community House on Periwinkle Way. The event includes demonstrations, shell displays, crafts, prizes, food and entertainment. Serious shellers compete for prizes while visitors shop and enjoy treasures that include award-winning Sailor's Valentines, popular in the 1800s when sailors brought them home to their sweethearts. For details visit www.sanibelcommunityhouse.com or call 239-472-2155.

Before heading out on a quest for the perfect junonia shell, many shellers visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, which is in its twelfth year of mounting exhibits and educating the public about mollusks and the hard exoskeletons they leave behind. With ties to the Smithsonian Institution, it is home to shells of southwest Florida and huge and rare specimens from around the world. The museum has the largest collection of shells in North America, including the intricate Sailor’s Valentines. A comprehensive Web-based system allows malacologists (zoologists who specialize in mollusks) the world over to access the museum's collection online. Shell buffs of every sort may view the museum's holdings as well. A learning lab offers a hands-on area for children and a gift shop filled with unique objects to take home, including a kit to make your own Sailor’s Valentine. For more information visit www.shellmuseum.org or call 1-888-679-6450.

Shellers will not want to miss the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers. A southwest Florida institution, it is billed as the "world's collection of rare shells, corals, sponges and fossils from the seven seas." Part museum, part gift shop, part nature park, it is a great addition to a shelling vacation. For more information visit www.shellfactory.com or call 239-995-2141.


Help preserve this natural resource
Lee County treasures this natural visitor attraction. Shell activists work to preserve this natural resource and protect live shells from being over-harvested and endangered. By signature of the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, the City of Sanibel Island banned all live shelling as of Jan. 1, 1995. As of March 2002, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, at the request of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, also banned all live shelling throughout the Fort Myers and Sanibel area. However, collection of uninhabited shells, ones where the animals or mollusks are already dead or gone from the shell, is unlimited and encouraged.

Identify Your Shelling Finds

"No one can deny the appeal of wandering a deserted beach in search of shells."

Here is a small sample of the 400 species of shells found on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, where cones, volutes, bivalves and olives decorate the shores.

Alphabet _cone

Alphabet cone
Conus spurius
Color: cream to white with rows of orange to light brown spots.

Apple _murex

Apple murex
Chicoreus pomum
A thick, heavy shell with a rough tan-to-brown surface.

Angel _Wing

Angel wing
Cyrtopleura costata
After storms, loose valves wash ashore on Gulf beaches.

Atlantic _calico _scallop

Atlantic calico scallop
Argopecten gibbus
Upper valve is lighter in color than lower and has orange, pink or brown markings.

Common _nutmeg

Common nutmeg
Cancellaria reticulate
Albinos are not uncommon.

Atlantic _giant _cockle

Atlantic giant cockle
Dinocardium robustum
Color: pale tan to yellowish-brown with irregular mottling.

FL_fighting _conch

Florida fighting conch
Strombus alatus
Color: extremely variable – orange, reddish-brown to dark mahogany.

Common _Jingle _shell

Common jingle shell
Anomia simplex
Colors: white, yellow, orange, silver-grey or blackish.

Junonia

Junonia
Scaphella junonia
Once-in-a-lifetime find.

Horse _conch

Horse conch
Triplofusus giganteus
Florida State Shell; “knobless wonder" found in Southwest Florida waters.

Lettered _olive

Lettered olive
Oliva sayana
Light tan to light grey with darker brown, tent-like markings.

Lion 's _Paw

Lion’s paw
Lyropecten nodosus
Rare deep-water species; halves wash up on the beach after storms.

Lightening _whelk

Lightning whelk
Busycon sinistrum
Very common on mud flats and bays.

True _tulip

True tulip
Fasciolaria tulipa
Found in seagrass bottoms and on sand flats.

Shark _eye

Shark eye
Neverita duplicata
Color: greyish to nearly white.

Sunray _venus

Sunray venus
Macrocallista nimbosa
Found on sandy bottoms.

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