By Kirsti Scott
As soon as your car crosses the causeway that connects Sanibel to Fort Myers, Florida, you’re in seashell heaven. Unlike the other barrier islands along Florida’s west coast, Sanibel Island juts out almost perpendicular to the coast. What this means for beachcombers is that the island scoops up seashells traveling on Gulf of Mexico currents and deposits them on its beaches. As a result, Sanibel Island, just 15 miles long and only two miles at its widest, is home to the best shelling in North America.
Seashells are integral to life in Sanibel, as they have been since prehistoric times, when the members of the Calusa tribe collected shells on Sanibel for food, tools, and building materials. Today, Sanibel and its neighbor to the north, Captiva Island, are a destination for millions of beachcombers who come to enjoy the year-round warm weather, beautiful beaches, wildlife, and, of course, seashells.
With 17 miles of beaches on the islands, there are plenty of beachcombing options.
“When you arrive on Sanibel Island, always stop off at the Chamber of Commerce for wonderful maps and information about the islands,” says Kelle Covington, a Sanibel beachcomber also known as Shelle Kelle. “I always go straight to Lighthouse Beach for photo opportunities and a great place to start your Shelling!” Kelle recommends the Lighthouse Cafe for breakfast after morning beachcombing, or a stop at Pinocchio’s for ice cream.
There are more than 400 varieties of shells on Sanibel and Captiva, including Conch, Junonia, Lightning Whelk, Cockle, Scallops, Murex, Tulip, Olive, and Coquina shells. The best shelling is at low tide, after a storm, and at the full moon. You can figure out where to go and what to collect by connecting with one of the Shell Ambassadors at The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Sanibel.
If you want a break from beachcombing, Kelle recommends a visit to the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. “The refuge occupies one-third of Sanibel Island and is a prime spot for birding,” says Kelle. “It’s so fun to drive through this sanctuary. It’s simply breathtaking, and I’ve seen a ’gator or two!”
If you are in Sanibel in early March, you will not want to miss the Annual Sanibel Shell Festival. Every year, shell enthusiasts from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, India, Japan, and the Caribbean compete in the longest-running and most prestigious competitive shell show in the United States. Shell collecting is the second-most popular collecting hobby in the world (after stamp collecting), so there’s plenty of competition at the show. Entrants compete in artistic and scientific categories for coveted blue, red, and white ribbons. Collectors and artists use shells that come from around the world in fascinating exhibits and exquisite works of art, such as floral bouquets made from shells and intricate Sailor’s Valentines.
The exhibit hall features documentaries filmed on Sanibel Island, plus a shop with books, jewelry, and shells for sale. The Community House offers shell-crafting demonstrations where you have the opportunity to make your own shell flowers or shell animals. The Shell Tent features thousands of locally found shells and fossils for sale with prices starting as low as 25 cents.
Next door to the Shell Tent, the Sanibel Shell Crafters sell seashell jewelry, mirrors, flower arrangements, and “shell critters” that they make during the year. And, Sanibel Elementary School 6th graders share their knowledge with attendees while visitors view multiple aquariums containing live mollusks.
After a day at the show or at the beach, Kelle recommends the Bimini Bait Shack, a tiki bar and grill at the end of the Sanibel Causeway Bridge. “It’s a fantastic way to shellebrate your day on the islands!” She also recommends a Captiva Cruises’ island-hopping trip to Cabbage Key. “It’s a fabulous authentic Florida island, accessible only by boat or plane,” she says. “The wallpaper inside the restaurant is made of autographed dollar bills taped to the walls and ceilings. If you go, you must do one!”
There are plenty of choices for accommodations in Sanibel, including destination resorts, barefoot beach cottages, vacation condos, budget motels, and charming inns. The closest airport to Sanibel is Fort Myers, but Orlando, Tampa, and Miami are each less than three hours away. To plan your Sanibel vacation, visit the Sanibel Island & Captiva Island Chamber of Commerce at sanibel-captiva.org. As Kelle Covington says of Sanibel, “Each moment is a gift to be shellebrated!”
No live shelling! Be sure your shell is empty before you bring it home. Taking live shellfish, sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins is illegal in Sanibel and all shelling is prohibited in the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
Kelle Covington and her husband retired in 2011 to Southwest Florida, and she is a volunteer and Shell Ambassador at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Find her on Instagram at @shellekelle, on Facebook at Kelle Covington, or on the beach every chance she gets.