Finding Shells on Sanibel Island

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Visiting Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Experts say Sanibel is one of the top three shelling destinations in the world. Shelling is both a serious topic and a relaxing leisure activity here on one of Florida's most famous islands. An hour or more before sunrise you'll find dedicated shellers searching the beaches with flashlights, wanting to be the first to find whatever shells may have washed up overnight.

Shells on Sanibel Beach

Shelling on Sanibel is great largely because of the orientation of the island: part of the island runs east and west, creating a long south-facing beach that slopes gently into the Gulf of Mexico. Shells roll gently onto the beaches instead of rolling right past the island. Most of the islands in Florida have a north-south orientation.

The best shelling is after a storm during low tide, but you can find shells anytime. After your shelling trip to the beach, you'll definitely want to stop in and visit the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. A trip to Sanibel is not complete without browsing the museum's incredible educational display of shells and artifacts.

Beautiful whelk shell on a Sanibel Island, Florida beach.

If you're really into shells and shelling, especially if you're into crafting with shells, you'll want to attend Sanibel's Annual Shell Fair and Show , a 3-day event held during the first week in March. This event includes an outdoor area where shells and crafts are sold, an indoor shell show, and an indoor juried artistic and scientific exhibit.

Where to Find the Best Shells on Sanibel

Shelling is quite good anywhere on the island, but one of the most consistent spots for finding the best shells is at Blind Pass, which separates Sanibel from Captiva Island. The Captiva side is often the best spot.

But don't be afraid to drive around to look for shells at different beaches. Lighthouse Park, Gulfside City Park, Bowmans Beach, Blind Pass Beach, and Captiva Beach are all excellent shelling locations. If things don't look so great at Blind Pass, then check some of the other beaches. Go early. Go at the first low tide following a storm or cold front passage.

How to Identify Shells You Find in Florida

A good shell identification guide is a must for serious shellers. Bookstores that carry Florida nature books often have full-color waterproof cards with common shells to help you ID shells. Another great resource is provided by the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, which has a helpful Florida shell identification feature on their website.

Live Cockle shell on Sanibel Island, Florida.

Holding a live Giant Cockle shell on Sanibel Island.

Shelling Laws on Sanibel Island

By State Law, the collecting of live shells on Sanibel and Captiva is prohibited. A live shell is any shell with an inhabitant. This also applies to live sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. No shells (live or dead) may be collected within the boundaries of Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Shells on a Sanibel beach.

Shells on a Sanibel Island beach.

Atlantic auger shells (live)

Atlantic augers exposed on a sandbar during a very low tide on Sanibel Island.

Atlantic auger shell trails in the beach sand.

Atlantic auger shell trails in the sand at low tide.

Sanibel Shell Show.

The annual Sanibel Shell Fair & Show attracts thousands of shell enthusiasts each year. It is held in the Sanibel Community Center.

Collection of Florida Fighting Conch shells at the Sanibel Shell Show.

A collector's display of Florida Fighting Conchs at the Sanibel Shell Show.

Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida.

A visit to Sanibel Island is not complete without a visit to the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum.

Common Florida Shells on display at the Sanibel Shell Museum.

Common Florida shells on display in the shell museum.

Display of Florida Tree Snail shells at Sanibel Shell Museum.

Florida tree snails make a colorful display in the shell museum.

Copyright: David McRee,