Shells, shells, shells, here in Florida we have literally tons of shells. We even use some when building our roads. These are often fossil shells, a topic we examine in our article on fossils. Some Floridians cover their yards with shells. A yard blanketed with shells is much easier to maintain than a lawn, which gives us more time to go to the beach, and look for shells!
There are more shells found on the West Coast of Florida than the east. The gradual slope of the shore and the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico cause shells to roll to the beaches with minimum damage. There, highly selective collectors, and short term visitors, harvest these treasures knowing the shells will soon be replaced. This doesn’t mean the creatures living in shells aren’t given some protection by law. You’re better off not collecting shells with a live snail inside. It’s allowed in some areas if you have a saltwater license, but is prohibited in Lee County, where Sanibel is, and limited in others. Cleaning shells is an unpleasant task anyway.
Sanibel Island is the best known place for shelling in Florida. Located on the Gulf Coast near Ft. Myers, it’s ideally situated to take advantage of geography and wind. On any nice day, which is basically everyday, the beaches will be dotted with young and old bent in the Sanibel stoop, scanning the beaches and shallow water for the missing piece to a valuable collection, or souvenirs to show the folks back home.
The most popular shelling beach on Sanibel is Light House Beach. It’s the closest beach to the mainland and the most crowded. There’s also a fishing pier and lighthouse there.
The best spot is the northern tip of Sanibel Island. Here Blind Pass separates Sanibel from Captiva. Both sides of the pass are thick with shells. Lately the Sanibel side has had the most. A bridge over the pass is a popular place to fish as are both shores. When the bite slows you can rummage around for shells.
Going north along the outer beaches of the barrier islands are more great shelling areas. After Sanibel and Captiva, you have two islands which can only be reached by boat, North Captiva and Cayo Costa. Next is Gasparilla Island which has Gasparilla Island State Park. The rest of the islands all the way to Venice will also have small, fossilized shark’s teeth mixed in with the sand.
When fresh, olives are naturally glossy because the live snail’s mantle covers the shell. In many locations when found the shells are dull, but most are still bright here.
This is a delicate shell that’s usually damaged when found in places other than the West Coast of Florida.
The lightning whelk is the one most commonly found. They can get up to 16 inches long, but tend to have better color when small.
There are times when none are to be found and others when they’re thick. In spite of their aggressive sounding name, they aren’t carnivorous. However, if you pick up a live one they’ll put up a fight, harmless, but to the uninitiated, startling.
All cones are venomous. Cone snails in Florida can deliver a sting similar to a wasp or bee’s, but such an occurrence is rare. Since cones are nocturnal, staying buried in the sand under the water during the day, you’re unlikely to find a live one. Still, flipping the shell over to insure it’s empty before handling, is recommended. The alphabet cone is the one most commonly found in this area.
Deep Water Scallops:
There are piles of bivalves on the beaches. They are the most common type of shell found here. A sheller can easily collect all they want. However, one can be an unusual find if it originated in deep water. The pressure flattens them, creating a different look than their shallow water brethren.
Another popular way to get shells is to buy them. There are a lots of stores specializing in shells. Shells from all over the world are sold in abundance here. They can be stunning decorative pieces in a home, matching or surpassing anything made by man. Do both, buy them and find them, but I’ve noticed when people are asked “Where did you get it?” their response is more enthusiastic if they can start their reply with “I found it at” instead of “I bought it at”. The memories are richer as well.