As the sun sets and the tide is low, Sanibel beachcombers hunch over the sand, dig and look at lumps in their search for a beautiful variety of seashells. Actually, the search doesn’t take long. The treasure hunt unveils vast amounts of shells of every kind: large and small, cone-shaped and scalloped and spiraled, pink or white or orange. Sanibel Island, and its sister island, Captiva, off the Southwest Coast of Florida are the mother lode for shell hunters, and it is all due to the area’s geography.
Travel & Leisure Magazine ranked Sanibel Island the #1 Best U.S. Shelling Beach. A hobby for many residents who walk from their Sanibel beachfront neighborhoods and shell lovers who come from all over the world, shelling is taken seriously by some folks. Depending on the wind, shells wash up onto the beach in piles, especially in the weeks following Tropical Storm Debby in late June. The heavy storm caused flooding and beach erosion along some places of Florida’s west coast and resulted in a blessing to seashell hunters.
Shelling on Sanibel has a lot to do with its geography: it is a 12-mile barrier island that curves and the coastline runs west to east instead of north to south. The coastline acts like a shovel scooping up all the seashells that the Gulf brings in from the Caribbean and other southern waters. Sanibel’s beaches are protected by a broad underwater shelf that makes it ideal to gather shells. The waves and currents channel about 275 shallow-water types of shells onto the beach. The South Pacific may get more, but the shells are harder to find and hunters need to dive and make boat trips.
Sanibel is one of the best and easiest places in the world for shelling, sometimes the layers of shells are 4 feet deep. In Sanibel, shelling is so popular that there are shell clubs, shell stores, shell guides and shell excursions. Some hotels in Sanibel even have rooms with sinks and worktables for cleaning and packing shells.
The abundance and variety of shells have earned shellers a reputation for doing the “Sanibel Stoop,” as hunters bend over to gather shells. All you need to shell is a bucket or net bag and scoop. Many types and sizes of shells are found on the shelling beaches, like conch, junonia, whelk, cockle, scallops, sand dollar, murex, tulip, olive, and coquina.