The Best Shelling in Florida

Shell Seekers Find Treasures Along the Lee Island Coast

boy finding shells on the beach


Stefanie Grewel / Getty Images 

Although you can find shells on just about any beach, southwest Florida's Lee Island Coast on the Gulf of Mexico boasts some of the best shelling in the United States. The more than 100 barrier islands, which make up the Lee Island Coast, cling closely to the Southwest Florida coastline, yielding approximately 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. Of those islands, ​Sanibel and Captiva are the most accessible and popular among shell seekers.

Shelling is a favorite pastime of tourists and residents alike who search the shoreline for Neptune's treasures. For some, it borders on an obsession with a few even donning miner's hats with lights so they can arise before sunrise and find the best specimens that have washed ashore.

Where to Look

Many seashell creatures are hidden just beneath the surface of the sand where the surf breaks, so it's important to know where to look. A good spot is the shell line, just where the highest waves stop as they come upon the beach. This is where groups of shells come up and are reshuffled by each wave. It saves digging to find the great shells.

According to Mike Fuery, a fishing and shelling charter captain on Captiva Island and author of Captain Fuery's Shelling Guide, "Sanibel Island's shape encourages shelling. While many islands face northwest, Sanibel runs in a more east-west direction. Its boomerang, or shrimp shape, slows down the shells and brings them onto the beach in one piece."

When to Look

Fuery believes that the peak shelling season on the Lee Island Coast is May through September, although he also says the typical winter cold fronts produce great shelling on the southwest side of the barrier islands.

In an effort to protect this natural attraction, Lee County has taken measures to protect and preserve the shell resources. Live shelling (that is picking up shells that still have live creatures inside) has been banned. The collection of dead shells (ones where the animals or mollusks are already dead or gone from the shell) is unlimited and encouraged.

Just know that successful shelling requires patience. What makes a shell valuable is not how much it costs in a gift shop, but how difficult is it to find. No collection worth looking at was ever found during one outing. That is what keeps most people coming back time after time for more.

Shelling Tips

  • There are no specific tools needed to collect shells, but a child's sand bucket and shovel are perfect
  • You will want to plan your shelling around the low phase of the tide, which allows more beach area on which to shell.
  • Try to go to the less populated beaches about an hour before low tide and work until an hour after the low tide.
  • The other good spot is at that slight drop in the surf line, just where gentle waves break before rolling on the beach. While this area is only accessible when weather permits, it usually holds the most and finest specimens.
  • Shelling after a storm usually produces more shell specimens along the beach.
  • Finally, learning how to clean your shells is as important as finding them.
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