This guide will tell you all about Shelling on Sanibel Island and Captiva Island. Famous for having the best beaches for shelling the islands are known as world-class shelling destinations with over 250 types of shells to explore. Thousands of visitors come every year hoping to find anything from a common traverse ark to the prized Junonia shell. Sanibel Island is even home to The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum!

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Discover the Best Beaches to Find Shells!


Why Are There So Many Shells On Sanibel Island?


Sanibel Island is known as the shelling capital of the world, and for good reason. Sanibel Island is surrounded by an underwater shelf, and the island’s unusual east-west facing orientation along the coast of Florida creates a perfect dust pan for shells being pulled in by currents in the Gulf of Mexico. This abundance of tiny treasures has given Sanibel Island its claim to fame, causing many visitors to assume the position of the “Sanibel Stoop” as they bend at the waist looking for shells along sandy stretches.


All About Shelling On Sanibel Island Like A Pro


If you are serious about the pursuit and all about shells on Sanibel Island, you need the right equipment.

STEP 1

Arm yourself with sunblock, a hat, a shelling sifter or scoop, a bucket or bag, and a strong back. The activity is addicting and you may find yourself doing the “Sanibel Stoop” for hours. Also, a pair of water shoes may be a good suggestion as some beaches are covered with tiny, sharp shells.

STEP 2

Look for banks of shells as you walk along the beach. Hundreds of beautiful, tiny shells can be found in these areas.

STEP 3

During low tide, go to the edge of the water where the waves stir up the sand as it hits the beach. Dig down into the sand as well. Dip your net in and see what you find.

STEP 4

For a different color scheme, you may want to look higher up on the beach for shells that have been bleached by the sun. These often white-washed specimens can make an unusual collection.


Is “Live Shelling” Prohibited On All Sanibel Island Beaches?


In the late 1980s, worried about the shell population, Sanibel Island petitioned the Florida Marine Fisheries Commission to restrict live shelling.  As a result, the commission passed a special “Sanibel Shelling” rule called the 46-26.  This rule restricted live shell collection to two specimens of any one species per day.

The 46-26 rule was in effect for six years however, enforcement was virtually impossible, and collecting in excess of these limits occurred regularly. So in 1993 Sanibel Island further petitioned the Fisheries Commission to establish a complete ban on live shelling.  This rule included shellfish, sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. After a public hearing, the rule was approved and went into effect on January 1, 1995. Thanks to the conservation-minded islanders, who pushed for rule 46-26 we now have beaches with an abundance of shells and sea life just waiting for you.

Keep in mind, no live shells can be taken. Also, don’t take too many shells. Over-shelling can harm the environment. Also, make sure to hang on to any plastic bags you may have brought to hold your new collection. Plastic bags are deadly to sea life.


The Florida & Sanibel Island Sea Shelling Law


The state of Florida and Sanibel Island shelling laws prohibit the collection of any live species within a half-mile of the shore, including urchins, sand dollars and sea stars, pursuant to Florida Department of Environmental Protection Rule 46-26. Violators can face a $500 fine or up to 60 days in jail for a first offense.

Shelling of any kind is prohibited at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

For more information on Florida Shelling Law, Click Here


What Are The Rare Shells Of Sanibel Island?


While each shell found on Sanibel Island is a miracle of nature, die-hard shell enthusiasts can spend a lifetime looking for the elusive Junonia, a shiny, long, brown and white speckled shell. Find one and you might get your picture in one of the local newspapers.

Other prized samples are the Scotch Bonnet, a ribbed oval, curled buttery-colored gastropod; the Lion’s Paw, coming in various colors and aptly named for its paw-like shape; and the Alphabet Cone, a tapered, banded tan and white patterned shell.


What Is The Best Month For Sanibel Island Shelling?


You can find shells all year long but the tourist season from January through April is the busiest on beaches and the best weather. You may have less competition finding shells in the off-season.

Shells also get stirred up during a storm, so hurricane season or after a big tropical storm can also be a good time to go shell-hunting.

The annual Sanibel Shell Festival, the longest-running and largest shell show in the world, takes place in early March so timing a trip to coordinate with attending the event is well worth the planning.


What Is The Best Time Of Day To Look For Shells?


Early morning low tide is the best time for shelling!

While gorgeous shells can be found any time of day, you will have less competition early in the morning, especially an hour before or after low tide. Some shellers say a full moon phase brings in more shells due to higher tides. After a storm is also a great time to look for shells, as they often get swept in by waves. In the winter months with a north wind–although it can be chilly–is another time that may bring in more little surprises.


What Type of Shells Can We Find On Sanibel Island?


Shells come in two categories: bivalves, which have two hinged sides that clamp together to enclose the species; and gastropods, which consist of a single, curled shell with an enclosed chamber. Some common examples of bivalves include scallops, clams, cockles, coquinas, and lion’s paws. Some common examples of gastropods include many varieties of conch, murex, olives and whelks.


shell from Sanibel island

CONCH SHELL

This type of shell houses animals in the snail family. This species comes in all shapes, colors and sizes, and their shell is usually conical, spiral and pointed at both ends with an opening along the side.

Common examples include the Horse Conch, with a light tan or brown spiral, bumpy body measuring up to about 20 inches; the commonly found Florida Fighting Conch, measuring up to about 4 ½ inches with a brownish body with about seven tapered spiny swirls coming to a pointy top; and the Crown Conch, measuring up to about 5 ½ inches with a brownish or grayish swirl patterned body with rows of spines. Keep in mind live shelling is prohibited on Sanibel and Captiva, as sometimes this type of shell still holds its resident.

Fun fact, the Horse Conch is the state shell of Florida!


JUNONIA SHELL

An elusive shell which is the golden ticket for Sanibel Island shell-seekers. Measuring up to about 6 inches in length, it has a conical, smooth body with about 5 swirled rows at the top. It is a pretty shell, patterned by white rows spotted with brownish squares. If you find one, send your picture to one of the local papers for publication!

Junonia shell from Sanibel Island

Whelk shells Sanibel Island

LIGHTNING WHELK SHELL

A commonly found shell comes in many sizes, up to about 15 inches. Usually light tan and creamy white, this pretty shell has a pointed top spiraling toward a shouldered ridge with small knobs. From there, the shell tapers to a slender bottom with a pointy end. These shells often get washed up after a storm.


COCKLE SHELL

The common cockle shell comes in a variety of sizes and colors. Usually only half of this bivalve is found, but occasionally this hinged shell can be found intact. Cockles are “shell-shaped”, with rowed ridges of patterns and colors of pinks, whites, browns, reds and other similar colors. They measure up to around 6 inches. Some examples are the Atlantic Giant Cockle, Painted Egg Cockle and Florida Prickly Cockle.

Cockle Shell from Sanibel island

Tulip shells from Sanibel

TULIP SHELL

Tulip shells can be found in shell banks and along breaking surf during low tide. They measure up to about 7 inches and have distinctive, colorful bands of stripes or similar patterns starting at a pointy top and spiraling down in a circular, sloping body to a pointy end. Examples include the Banded Tulip and True Tulip.


SAND DOLLAR

Not technically a shell, the sand dollar is in the sea urchin family. They can mostly be found under water, along the sandy or muddy bottom. They have a five-pointed star pattern surrounded by rounded body. While keeping a live sand dollar is illegal on the islands, occasionally you can find a dried skeleton along the beach, although it is rare to find one intact as they are very fragile.

sand dollar from Sanibel Island

Olive Shells - Sanibel Island

OLIVE SHELL

This shell species is aptly named, as it looks almost like a long olive. The Lettered Olive measures up to about 2 ½ inches long with a shiny, polished smooth body beginning with a tiny pointed top with about three swirled bands. They are usually tan or brown and white in pattern.


COQUINA SHELL

Small coquina shells like the Variable Coquina can sometimes be found intact. They are small, measuring up to about ¾ of an inch and come in a variety of colors. They are shell-wedge shaped with smooth, circular bands extending out to an oval edge. They can range in color from white to yellow to dark purple.

coquina shells from Sanibel Island

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum


national shell museum
Shell museum on Sanibel Island

The Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum
3075 Sanibel Captiva Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957
239-395-2233

Visit The Museum’s Website

From its humble beginnings in 1984, the world-class Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is the ONLY museum in the United States devoted solely to shells and mollusks. There are 30 permanent exhibits and a living gallery that gives visitors a chance to see and touch some of the creatures that create the shells. There is a gift shop. They also offer daily off-site beach walks among other programs.

Check out our guide to tools for shelling HERE.


Best Beaches For Shelling


Sanibel Island

Bowmans Sanibel

Bowman’s Beach

1700 Bowman’s Beach Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957

Blind Pass Captiva

Blind Pass Beach

6491 Sanibel Captiva Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957

Sanibel Island Lighhouse

Lighthouse Beach Park

110 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957

Captiva Island

Turner Beach

7200 Captiva Dr, Captiva, FL 33957

Turner beach on Captiva

Alison Hagerup Beach

14790 Captiva Dr, Captiva, FL 33924


Sanibel Island Shelling Tour Companies


Several companies, as well as the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, offer guided shelling tours along beaches of Sanibel, Captiva and other nearby barrier islands

Captiva Cruises on Captiva Island

Captiva Cruises

11401 Andy Rosse Ln, Captiva, FL 33924

239-472-5300

Visit Captiva Cruises

Jensen's Marina on Captiva Island

Jensen’s Twin Palms Marina

11401 Andy Rosse Ln, Captiva, FL 33924

239-472-5800

Visit Twin Palms Marina

Tarpon Bay Explorers on Sanibel Island

Tarpon Bay Explorers

900 Tarpon Bay Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957

239-472-8900

Visit Tarpon Bay Explorers

boat in Tarpon Bay on Sanibel Island

Adventures in Paradise

2019 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957

239-472-8236

Visit Adventures in Paradise

Motorboat on Sanibel Island

New Wave Eco Charters

6460 Sanibel Captiva Rd, Sanibel, FL 33957

239-671-7447

Visit New Wave Eco Charters

Sanibel Sea School on Sanibel Island

Sanibel Sea School

455 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel, FL 33957

239-472-8585

Visit Sanibel Sea School