Shell Hunting: Footprints in the Sand




Sanibel Island is considered one the best places in the coastal United States to collect seashells. As a matter of fact the island is a close second to only the Philippines as the most popular location in the world among serious shell aficionados.

Scientists point to many reasons for this with a key element being the large area of fairly shallow water off our coastline. Most coastal areas have quick drop-offs with deep water occurring within just a few miles of the beaches. The bottom is rocky with many edges and pits that trap and break shells. The southwest Gulf coast features a very gradual decrease in depth as you move eastward from the deepest waters. This gentle sloping bottom allows the shells to slowly roll toward the beaches, especially during storms and rough seas, and more or less gently places them on the shoreline.

I’ve spent a lot of time hunting for shells from Sanibel to Cayo Costa. The searches were always fruitful with lots of perfect shells and quite a few rare finds like the Junonia, lion’s paw and scotch bonnet. That was my happy hunting ground (beach) until very recently when I was introduced to shelling off the coast just south of Marco Island. Yes, they have shells there too, but the hunting for them is a bit different. I call it Jungle Shelling.

The shorelines just south of Marco are actually the outer islands of the Ten Thousand Island chain. A couple of the largest on the Gulf coast are Kice and Morgan Islands. The shorelines are now mostly broken mangroves that suffered a lot of damage during 2017’s Hurricane Irma. While the damage was disappointing and scarred the coastline, it also created an amazing place to look for shells. As the tide and waves carry the shells in, the old roots, trunks and broken branches have become a huge shell collection area, trapping them in pockets and holes in and among the debris.

Shelling there is a challenge, but certainly worth it. Access is by boat or kayak and being able to navigate the area is a must. There are lots of sand bars willing to mess up your day, so boating slowly is the best tactic. Once a landing spot is selected and the boat is secure be prepared to duck under branches and step over lots of obstacles to find those treasures. At times no-see-ums and horseflies can be a problem, so make sure to bring insect repellent.

Jungle shelling. Photo by Laura Utke.

A very helpful addition to any shelling adventure should be polarized sunglasses, preferably with amber colored lenses. The more you spend the better the ability of the glasses to cut glare on the shallow water and show you exactly were the shells are BEFORE they reach the beach. In the world of shelling that’s a big advantage.

With any sport there are rules and shelling is considered a sport in Florida. Not really, but shellers take collecting them very seriously. In the state of Florida it is illegal to take a shell with any living critter in it, such as snails and small crabs. It’s also against the rules to take live starfish and sand dollars. If you’re not sure, put it back.

For fishermen there’s an old saying, “The early bird gets the worm.” Shell hunting is much the same. I’ve seen folks on our beaches well before the sun comes up with flashlights searching the shallow water for that once in a lifetime prize. While early is a good idea I’d also put a lot of weight on location. That’s exactly why I like Jungle Shelling.

Footprints-in-the-Sand-Rob-ModysCaptain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman, retired spin & fly fishing guide and host of REEL Talk Radio on ESPN 99.3 FM from 7-10 a.m. every Saturday morning. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association. Capt. Rob also shares his fishing knowledge in a series of fishing classes at Bass Pro Shops.