Life on a Sandbar: The Outer Banks

By Tiffany Meekins

outer banks beachcombing

You may have heard about the OBX and wondered, “Where exactly is the OBX located?” The OBX, short for Outer Banks, are the barrier islands that separate the Atlantic Ocean from the North Carolina mainland. These islands are a chain of ever-changing sandbars, with the ocean on one side and the sound on the other.

North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a very popular tourist destination, especially in the summer season. The OBX is well known for fishing, surfing, beautiful lighthouses, wild horses, and my favorite: beachcombing! The OBX offers some of the best shelling on the East Coast There are plenty of sandy beaches to explore from Carova to Ocracoke.

Growing up here on the OBX meant a lot of time beachcombing. It is fun to explore all of the beaches up and down the OBX—they all are sandy beaches with windswept dunes, but in some ways, they are each unique and offer different shells and beachcombing finds.

outer banks lighthouse and beachcombers

The Northern Beaches—Carova, Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head—are quite a bit busier but offer more activities, shopping, and dining. Carova is a must-see beach if your car has four-wheel drive. While beachcombing there, you might get lucky and see some of the wild horses. Also, close by in Corolla is the Currituck Lighthouse, which is the northernmost lighthouse on the OBX.

map of the outer banks

Heading farther south there is Bodie Island, which also has the Bodie Island lighthouse and Coquina Beach is a very popular less crowded beach that can be good for beachcombing. This is also the beginning of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which has some of the most pristine beaches in the state. Once you pass over the Oregon Inlet bridge and arrive on Hatteras Island, you will pass through the Pea Island National Refuge which is a very popular beach among beachcombers.

cape hatteras lighthouse and shells

Hatteras Island is my favorite, not just because it’s my home and is more secluded than the northern beaches, but also because we get the best of both worlds when it comes to shelling. You probably have heard about the recently-formed Shelly Island, or the famous Diamond Shoals (known as Graveyard of the Atlantic), or the famous fishing spot Cape Point in Buxton. This area is where two major currents collide: the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. Thousands of shipwrecks have occurred here because of the shoals and rough seas, but these currents also push in varieties of both cold water and warm water shells. Because of this, we tend to find cold-habitat shells north of Cape Point and the warmer-habitat shells south of the point.

sand dollars and shells from outer banks beachcomber

Some of the most common shells to find all along the OBX are whelks of many varieties (knobbed, lightning, and channeled), shark eyes, surf clams, quahogs, oysters, giant eastern cockles, and scallops. Some of the smaller common shells are baby ears, coquina clams, jingles, slippersnails, eastern augers, keyhole limpets, and cross-hatched lucines.

On the south beaches, you can find imperial venus clams, mossy arks, cup and saucers, kittenpaws, and olives. My favorites to look for on the south beaches are sundials, jewelboxes, nutmegs, wentletraps, and lion’s paws. The shell everybody is on the hunt for is the North Carolina state shell, the Scotch bonnet. They can be found all along the OBX if you are at the right spot at the right time. I have better luck on the south beaches and with sand dollars, too.

collection of outer banks north carolina shells

The south beaches also offer a lot of coral. I can never resist a piece of coral. We have two common varieties: the Northern star and the ivory bush coral. Sometimes after a storm, you can find a nice big piece. Some of my favorite, more rare finds are queen helmets, eastern murexes, and Florida fighting conchs. My most prized find is a rare piece of a paper nautilus, which is from a female argonaut octopus. Near the point, we can also find fossilized sand dollars—my son always has the best luck finding those—and crystallized shells, fossil shells that have calcite crystals growing in them.

After storms is always a fun time to beachcomb. I like to look for sea beans, which are drift seeds that ride currents all the way from the tropics. Sea hearts and hamburger beans are usually what I find. Beachcombing on the sound side can be fun, too. I find a lot of periwinkles and mudsnails, but there tend to be more occupied shells on the sound side, so always check for living creatures and on the oceanside too.

Hatteras Island, which consists of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras all have nice beaches, some with ramps to the beach for four-wheel driving. Buxton is home of America’s tallest lighthouse, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Even though Hatteras Island is more relaxed and secluded there are still many lodging choices, restaurants, and shops.

pony pen north carolina outer banks

Heading even farther south and accessible only by ferry is Ocracoke Island,which is well known for its beautiful beaches and good shelling, is a great place to look for scotch bonnets and sand dollars. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is located there, as well as the wild ponies of the Ocracoke pony pen. If you like even more adventure, you can take a private ferry over to Portsmouth Island, just a little south of Ocracoke. Portsmouth is now an uninhabited island, except for park service and volunteers. It is one of my favorite places to go shelling but be sure to take bug spray.

outer banks sea shells and beach glass

The OBX really does have an amazing variety of seashells (I didn’t even mention all of them), but my absolute favorite thing to hunt for is sea glass. My mom was a glass collector, not sea glass but Depression glass, etched glass, cut glass, and mid-century glass, so I grew up learning about glass. It is my passion. I started collecting Depression glass, old bottles, insulators, and glass fishing floats, and when I started beachcombing daily and started finding sea glass, naturally, I was hooked!

We tend to find a lot of the common sea glass colors here on the OBX—green, clear, and brown—so it’s always exciting to come across a rare color. It’s definitely not like Puerto Rico where you can pretty much get a rare color every day. I spend hours walking and checking different beaches, sometimes two or three times a day. Finding a piece of glass that has a Depression pattern I can identify is just the neatest thing to me. I love the history: Was it a piece from a bottle on a shipwreck?

sea glass beach in north carolina outer banks

I hunt for glass every day with my little boy, and I love seeing the excitement when he finds a piece of sea glass. He found a gorgeous lavender piece of sea glass from a milk bottle in Frisco on Hatteras Island, and he was just so excited. He has been beachcombing daily with me since he was two weeks old, so he knows his sea glass and shells. My other two boys are with me when not in school or surfing, and they find it fascinating what can be found while beachcombing. My oldest son likes finding sharks teeth and my middle son’s favorite find is a spearhead. Sometimes if the waves are not that great, I even have my husband out beachcombing.

I love capturing the beauty of our finds, too, so I started turning my OBX Beachcomber photography into wall art, prints, canvases, and new this year, clocks that can be found in OBX shops or in my Etsy shop, OBXBeachcomber. The OBX really is an awesome place for beachcombing. You never know what will be on the beach when you go over the dunes. One day it can be full of shells, and then the next tide, they can all be washed away.

The OBX is loaded with history, so if you’re looking for other things to do, there are plenty of choices. The Lost Colony, aquarium, and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse are located on Roanoke Island, the Wright Brothers Memorial is in Kill Devil Hills, Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head is the tallest sand dune on the Atlantic coast, and on Hatteras Island, there is the Graveyard of the Atlantic museum. Also, in the summer season, the Hatteras, Bodie, and Currituck lighthouses are open to climbing. I love visiting the lighthouses. My great grandfathers were lightkeepers here at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The lighthouses are a big part of our Outer Banks history. The OBX also has several fishing piers, too, which are very popular.

Living and beachcombing on this sandbar I get to call home really is an adventure. We get our share of hurricanes and storms, but it really is paradise and we have the best sunrises and sunsets, too.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.

No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.

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