By Amanda Collett
In my five years as a sheller, I have learned so much all on my own through trial and error, and I love to share the way I shell. Each person has different goals, speeds, and favorite shells they’re hoping to find. But everyone does seem to agree that: “Nothing matters while shelling.” Just have fun! It is best to go at your own pace and enjoy the moment. I am delighted to be able to share with you some tips that have made my Florida shelling trips more fun, and what works best for me may help you, too!
First of all, I do not watch the tide charts. Like the old saying goes, “the early bird gets the worm!” When I’m going shelling, I get up at 5:00 am in order to be dressed and out the door by 5:30 am. That way, there are no crowds around. Make sure the area where you are shelling is safe at that time of the morning, and if you shell on a beach during turtle season, which is May-October in Florida, you need to carry a red-lensed flashlight, as the use of regular flashlights confuses the female turtles laying their eggs on the beach.
Packing for your shelling trip
This is what I wear and take along on my shelling trips. A normal shelling day for me is 6 to 8 hours long, because I beachcomb very slowly in hopes of not missing anything! You should adjust this list for your beachcombing style and the conditions on your beach.
Now we are ready to start this amazing adventure. First of all, I am a dry-land sheller, and I do not shell out in the water. I don’t dig for shells, either, as this southern belle does NOT like sand nor salt. Even though people enjoy digging in shell piles to find shells, I am a walker, so I enjoy the exercise. It always amazes me to see all the shells the ocean keeps washing up not just in one spot, but all over the entire beach.
I start my shelling at the shoreline where the water is coming in and depositing the newest shells. I look for shells with bright colors and interesting shapes. After shelling along the shoreline, you can move away from the water’s edge, up to where you can still see wet sand. Lighter weight shells are going to be higher upon the shore than the heavier ones because of the wind and waves. It will move them up into the brush and onto the dry sand.
Do not underestimate high-tide shelling in the bushes or mangroves. Those are the places some people don’t want to go, therefore there will more likely be shells there. And guess what? There usually are! For example, you may find figs, angel wings, elegant dosinia, channeled duck clams, tusk shells, buttercups, pear whelks, and other lighter-weight shells, which are more likely to be found in dry areas.
Be sure to bring a shell guide with you, especially until you become familiar with the different local shells. That way you know what you are looking for. Learning to identify different shells does not happen overnight, but takes a lot of time. You can find shell guides at local shops, and sometimes hotels provide magazines with shell guides.
Before placing shells in your bag, always remember to check each shell to make sure it does not have a live animal in it. Only collect empty shells. (It is illegal to “live shell” in the state of Florida.) If a shell is collected directly from the water it is more likely be “alive.” The easiest way to tell if a shell is alive is if you see it moving in the water or on the sand, or if the creature inside starts moving and attempts to come out of its shell when you pick it up. If you happen to pick up a live shell, DO NOT throw it. Instead, turn it upright, then gently place it back where it was. Rinse the sand from shells before you bag them, to keep down the weight you are carrying.
If you find a live shell, you may also notice an operculum, which is an oval-shaped hard plate that closes the opening of a shell like a trap door, protecting the soft parts of the animal when they are retracted inside the shell. In species where the operculum fits snugly, its outline corresponds exactly to the shape of the aperture of the shell and it serves to seal the entrance.
While shelling, don’t miss searching in washed-out gullies and drainage ditches, two other places people don’t usually consider when shelling. They are great places to look through. Even though sometimes they may even look a little gross or nasty, some of my best shells have come from the washed-out gully areas.
Remember, shells are not going to jump into your bag; you have to hunt for them. It is like a treasure hunt and the hunting is what I enjoy the most. If the tide goes out while you are shelling, get out there on the sand bar and see what you can find. You just never know! I always watch for odd shapes when out on the sandbar and that is usually where I normally find all of my large horse conchs, the Florida state shell. I have been very fortunate, but most call it lucky, to have never left Florida without a horse conch in my hand.
Low-tide shelling is fun, but most everything you find will be alive. Through years of trial and error, I have figured out that if I just get up and out there on the beach early in the mornings, I always bring back beautiful treasures.
One of my favorite ways of shelling is to go on a boat excursion with an experienced boat captain/sheller somewhere off the beaten path, where you are more likely to find more treasures than you would by just walking on open beaches. Most of island excursions will be to beaches that are not crowded with people. The majority of my shells have come from taking shelling tours to these islands, accessible by boat only.
Learn more about seashells
Learn more about identifying shells, the history of seashell collecting, great shelling beaches, and the lives of the animals who make the shells we find on the beach. Articles ›
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.
For more information on finding, identifying, cleaning, and creating art with shells, pick up a copy of Amanda’s book, My Way of Shelling, by contacting Amanda on Facebook or Instagram @amandas_oceantreasure or via email at email@example.com.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.