Top 10 Shelling Beaches

Winter storms stir up a bounty of prize specimens. Here's where to hunt.

Top 10 Shelling Beaches

Gayle Christopher

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1. Sanibel Island, Florida
Experts crown Sanibel, off Fort Myers in Southwest Florida, as the best U.S. shelling spot, and one of the best in the world. Seashells cover the beaches, tinkling like wind chimes as they tumble over one another in the waves. Low-key development, abundant wildlife, and great restaurants make the island a wonderful all-around getaway. Shell fanciers should also visit The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum and the annual Sanibel Shell Fair and Show held every March.

2. Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
The rare Scotch bonnet, state shell of North Carolina, sometimes turns up here. (Each fragile, beautiful shell, shaped like an egg with spiral bands and brown spots, once housed a sea snail, a remorseless predator that feeds on sand dollars and other small sea creatures.) Even during the frenetic summer season, few tourists venture outside Ocracoke Village at the south end of this 16-mile-long Outer Banks island. In winter, when restless weather stirs up all sorts of treasures from the deep, only the gulls are likely to share the northern beaches. Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman ranked Ocracoke third on his 2006 "top beaches" list.

3. Bandon, Oregon
West Coast beaches don't provide great bounties of shells, partly because the mighty Pacific Ocean waves tend to chew up most specimens. Still, the beaches near this charming seaside town may harbor some finds, especially in protected areas such as the mouth of the Coquille River. As consolation prizes, winter storms also toss up Japanese glass fishing floats and such semiprecious stones as agate and jasper.

4. Galveston, Texas
The Gulf of Mexico loves to decorate its coast with shells. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site proclaims, "Gulf beaches are considered the best shelling beaches in North America." Galveston Island's western end usually offers prime pickings. When cold fronts roll in from the north, experienced shellers bundle up and hit the beach. The wind pushes the water away from shore, exposing lots of fresh sand for prospecting.

5. Tunnels Beach, Kauai, Hawaii
Several beaches on the north shore of Hawaii's "Garden Isle" yield nice shell harvests, especially in the area around Haena, near the end of the road that doesn't quite circle Kauai. We're singling out Tunnels Beach for nostalgic reasons. Legend has it that the puka shell-necklace craze began here in the 1960s. A protective reef makes the water ideal for snorkeling, too.

6. Flag Ponds Nature Park, Lusby, Maryland  
Most of the shells here, along the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis, are fossils dating back millions of years. They've come from the Calvert Cliffs, a 30-mile stretch of what was the sea bottom during the Miocene Epoch. Today's bay determinedly chews into the cliffs, freeing the shells, shark teeth, and other fossils within. The park opens daily during the summer and weekends year-round. Calvert Cliffs State Park, just south, also encompasses a small public beach worth searching. Warning: Everyone should stay away from the unstable cliffs themselves.

7. Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia
Seventeen miles of virtually unpeopled Atlantic beach allow leisurely browsing of un-picked-over specimens, including sand dollars. No bridge reaches this barrier island just north of the Florida line, and the National Park Service strictly controls access by ferry. So beachcombers may go hours without seeing another person, though birds and other wildlife abound. Shark teeth can often be found on the marsh (west) side of the island.

8. Eleuthera Island, The Bahamas
Supreme opportunities follow hurricanes, which pile mounds of shells onto the beaches. Those who prefer not to wait for bad weather can find a huge variety of specimens by snorkeling in the shallow waters just offshore. Eleuthera is one of The Bahamas' "Out Islands," only an hour or so by air from Fort Lauderdale or Miami. Visitors should expect an adventure―no-frills accommodations, no shops to speak of, but plenty of local seafood.

9. Great Peconic Bay, Long Island, New York
The bay, between the North and South forks of Long Island, once was the nation's biggest source of bay scallops. In the mid-1980s, algae wiped out most of the population. Still, the beaches of this surprisingly unspoiled area do contain some bay scallop shells (the official New York state shell) as well as other treasures. And, thanks to restoration efforts, the scallops have been recovering.

10. Stinson Beach, California
As with most West Coast shores, the hunting here doesn't compare with that along the Gulf. Still, this beach just north of San Francisco does supply limpet shells and sand dollars―plus lots of surfers, a couple of nice seafood restaurants nearby, rugged natural beauty, and endearing small-town quirkiness.

published March 2007

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