By Amy Bentley
On the 15-minute boat ride to Shell Camp Florida, some friendly dolphins appeared next to our boat as soon as we left the marina. They followed us most of the way to Shell Camp, frolicking in the waves behind the boat to the delight of the guests, who whipped out their cellphones to take videos of them jumping in and out of the water.
If this cool nature moment was a sign of how my trip to Shell Camp was going to turn out, I knew it was going to be a good week.
And it was. Beachfront accommodations with an ocean view? Check. Plenty of shells to hunt for and collect? You bet. Delish gourmet meals? Definitely. Activities to enjoy throughout the day? Check that, too.
I’d arrived for Shell Camp Florida, an eco-friendly “glamping” (glamorous camping) trip in Southwest Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Located between Marco Island and the Everglades, the Ten Thousand Islands are a refuge for thousands of birds, a nesting site for large loggerhead sea turtles, and a haven for manatees and dolphins. The area is also known as one of the best shelling beaches in the country.
I had the opportunity to attend Shell Camp Florida for a four-day, three-night, all-inclusive trip and enjoy some awesome beachcombing. Shell Camp Florida offers large, comfortable furnished tents for guests, along with a dining tent and a bathroom tent. It’s set up between the Gulf of Mexico and a mangrove forest. I spent my days and nights beachcombing, bird watching, photographing nature, and star gazing at night without any city light pollution.
A highlight was beachcombing at night. At twilight, the beach came alive, with cockles and lettered olives creating curved tracks as they crawled through the damp sand while the gulf receded for the second low tide. We donned headlamps and observed a surreal world of shifting sand, live shells, and millions of empty shells littering the beach. I found my first fully intact pair of angel wings. The beach at night was truly magical under a bright full moon and thousands of stars.
The island is predominantly mangrove forest dotted with white sandy beaches. A few guests walked across the whole island, which is almost two miles, dodging tree roots, downed branches, and tidal debris. I explored closer to camp and found a large, empty horse conch (score!) at the base of a mangrove tree root, where shells get trapped in the gnarled roots—a great place to look for treasures.
Shell Camp Florida was conceived and created by Julie Adrian, a New York native who left the cold winters for an outdoor beachy life. An outdoors-woman all her life who enjoyed successful careers in culinary sales and television advertising, Julie is a Florida Coast Master Naturalist, a Shell Ambassador for the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, and a conservation educator.
Julie came up with the idea for Shell Camp in 2018 after exploring some of Southwest Florida’s barrier islands. After taking several day trips to the Ten Thousand Islands, she decided that she wanted to give others a better—and longer—opportunity to explore the islands, especially at night.
“My trips are one-of-a-kind. I’m not aware of any other tour company offering an all-inclusive experience like Shell Camp,” Julie said, adding that she spent a year working out the logistics for Shell Camp and testing equipment. Guests travel from all over the United States to attend Shell Camp, and many come back a second and third time. Four of the eight guests had attended Shell Camp previously, two and three times.
Assisting Julie is Johnny Librera, an amazing gourmet cook who also guides shore fishing. Assistant Shell Camp Director Angela Robertson oversees the logistics of camp setup, tear-down, meals, and guest needs. Among the best of Johnny’s meals was a dinner of filet mignon, shrimp Alfredo, grilled asparagus, all topped off with delicious homemade carrot cake. We couldn’t wait to hit the dining tent first thing in the morning for a piece (or two) of Johnny’s homemade almond pastry and fresh brewed coffee, followed by blueberry pancakes or a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a toasted English muffin.
Julie hosted a fun “Shell Share” activity on the last day of camp so our group could share their beachcombing finds. On our trip, the guests found a range of treasures including large horse conchs, tulips, baby’s ears, shark eyes, whelks, a variety of murexes, kings crowns, alphabet cones, sand dollars, nutmegs, olives, and other shells found in Southwest Florida (which boasts over 400 shell varieties). The tide debris also turned out some interesting driftwood, shell egg casings, sea stars, and urchins.
The most memorable part of Shell Camp was living on the beach, enjoying nature, and sharing everyone’s excitement over each cool beach find. I went home having met some friendly, like-minded beachcombers—and, of course, with a great assortment of new sea treasures too!
Find out more about Shell Camp Florida at shellcampflorida.com.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2022 issue.