Shelling in North Carolina 


Any of the ocean facing beaches in North Carolina will produce nice shells. Shells wash ashore most frequently after major winter storms and tropical storms in summer and fall. The volume and variety of shells washed ashore after storms can be astounding. Immediately after a storm the beach may be clean. In a few days shells often begin to wash ashore on gentler waves. A good rule of thumb when hunting for shells along many NC beaches is: "The early bird gets the worm." Be out at first light or as the weather permits. Take your time and look closely. Small and miniature shells may be plentiful but are easily to overlooked by many people. Reading glasses may help in seeing some truly micro shells. If you wish a more causal day time collecting, visit one of the undeveloped and/or remote beaches where fewer collectors try their luck. North Carolina law states that all beaches are in the public domain from the water line to the first vegetation, typically sand dunes.


For the best shell collecting, the Outer Banks is the place to go.
Before you begin your plans bear in mind that the winter months with more frequent storms wash more shells ashore. Quieter summer months with gentle surf do not wash as many shells ashore.  Also bear in mind that shell collecting is very popular with many of those who visit the Outer Banks not to mention many people who live there. The beach may not be littered with shells for the picking when you are there but with some persistence and planning you can better your chances for finding some really nice shells.
Ocracoke is a good destination. As mentioned earlier after big storms and/or when the weather is not as nice the collecting is the best. The island provides lots of places to stay, eat and with friendly people to make your stay pleasurable. It is a good base to collect from.
Look to the south of Ocracoke. Portsmouth Island. It is uninhabited and has shallow draft boat access only from Ocracoke or off road access from Atlantic. Boat rides may be chartered for day or camping/overnight from Ocracoke. The Austins are good people who operate a service for this. 
Search Cape Lookout National Seashore on the Internet. Cape Lookout is composed of mostly uninhabited Islands. Portsmouth is one. Services take people with off road vehicles there from Atlantic, and others are passenger only. If you have beach driving capability you can cover a lot of ground. However be aware that those beaches can be quickly stripped of shells by collectors.
Shackleford Banks at the southern end of the park is limited to foot traffic so the shells last longer as it is possible for one person to carry off only so many at a time. Boat trips from Harkers Island and Beaufort take you across to either the east end of the island (and Cape Lookout) or the west of the island. 
 South of the Outer Banks collecting is fitful due to largely developed beaches and that the Gulf Stream is further offshore. Hammocks Beach State Park, accessible by boat from Swansboro, provides a nice shelling beach. North of Cape Hatteras where the Gulf Stream bends out to sea the shells are more like those found northward through Virgina to New Jersey.

If the Scotch bonnet is one of your target shells, as it is for many collectors, Portsmouth Island and Core Banks not to mention Ocracoke are your best bets for finding it.

Additional, undeveloped beaches for shelling.

Masonboro Island is located to the south of Wrightsville Beach. It has water craft access only. Most of it is owned by State Of North Carolina.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area: Motor vehicles are allowed on this beach, by permit. Searching for small shells at low tide will be your best bet for success on an average summer day.

Bald Head Island is a private island. A passenger boat at South Port takes visitors there. After you land, you may want to rent a golf cart or bicycle to cross the island. If you have great stamina and can drive on the beach, you may go there by driving down the beach at Fort Fisher, park your car at the end of the park and walk toward Cape Fear (Bald Head Island). An inlet may be shown on maps but that inlet is closed.

Bird Island is accessible by foot from the west end of Ocean Isle Beach.


If you want to see shells at museums.


North Carolina Maritime Museum, Beaufort NC has a world wide collection.

Cape Fear Museum, Wilmington NC has a small NC collection until Sept 2009. 

Museum of Coastal Carolina, Ocean Isle Beach has a comprehensive North Carolina shell collection.  




Shell Collecting Ethics

Shell collectors often ask two questions related to shell collecting ethics. Does it harm shell populations to collect living mollusks? And just how much shell collecting is acceptable at any location.

Collecting living mollusks is acceptable if it is done in a responsible manner. Because shells rapidly deteriorate once the mollusk dies, it is necessary to collect live specimens in order to obtain the finest samples. There are, however, guidelines to follow in order to protect shell populations.

  • Collect only what you need. Will collecting this shell enhance your collection or the collection of another shell enthusiast? Do not allow yourself to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and make poor choices about which shells you need to keep.

  • Protect the shell population. Collect conservatively. Do not collect living juveniles. Do not take everything you find. Collect specimens only from areas where many of its kind are living. Select one or two representative specimens. Note: This applies also to group collecting. Everyone in a large group collecting one or two living shells has the same effect as one person taking a bucketful!

  • Leave the habitat as undisturbed as possible. Return things to the way they were when you entered the habitat. For example, replace any rocks you turned over. Place the mollusks you decide not to keep back into the environment so they can recover and continue their life cycle.

  • If collecting for scientific purposes, take careful notes regarding the environment and the behavior of the mollusk. The specimen has little scientific value without this information.

  • Learn the local regulations. State and national parks, as well as marine preserves, generally have laws against taking live shells. Some states require a fishing license to collect live shells from public waters. Collecting commercially important species may have additional regulations governing when and where they can be collected and who can do the collecting. There are even regulations regarding the collection of dead shells. Be sure you know the requirements where you are collecting. And, be aware there may even be international regulations that could affect your collecting practices.

  • Respect private property fronting the waters. The waters are public but the land often is not.

  • Appreciate any gifts of nature that come your way. A living shell tossed ashore by waves is dying. There is little chance to return the animal to a habitat where it will recover. Hurling these shells into the ocean is not an effective method of returning them where they can recover! This process is the natural death process and provides the occasional opportunity for a lucky shell collector to add an especially nice shell to his or her collection.

  • Recognize there are many reasons to collect. Aesthetics are what drive the interest in shells for many collectors. Choosing a shell because it would look great on your bookshelf or mantle can be a compelling reason for collecting it.

Collecting shells is enjoyable, whether pursued for scientific purposes or simply because shells are beautiful and appealing. Healthy mollusk populations can withstand the collection of a small portion of the living individuals. As responsible shell collectors, it is important to protect the natural habitats and populations of the shells we love by avoiding over collection and destructive collection practices.


Look for more ID Guides in the future - soon to have their own tab on this site.












Second installment of ID Guides produced by John Timmerman:



































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