I just returned from a bucket-list birthday adventure – a shell hunting trip to Sanibel, Florida!
The queen of seashell beaches... often proclaimed as the best in the world. Sanibel is so shelled-out it seems like there would be none left, but there are, just thousands of them! The beach is everything you hope for and IS loaded with piles and piles of fascinating and beautiful shells.
Here is a peak at my catch from one day at the beach:
Insane, right?! I took this photo in the parking lot in the afternoon... gorgeous.
I have been longingly looking at photos on Pinterest, Instagram and every other internet source available to make my 1 day in Sanibel as good as possible.
I want to share with you what I learned, and what I found!
I researched, took notes, made a whole folder of screenshots and tips for myself. And, it was easy, it was perfect, and I found TONS of amazing shells!!
A Day Trip to Sanibel for Shells
I was in Vero Beach visiting family on the East Coast of Florida, and a quick Google map told me it was a 3.5 hr drive across the state to Sanibel - worth it!
I woke up on my birthday (Feb 2nd) at 4:00AM, which just so happened to be a FULL MOON LOW TIDE AT 9:00AM. This was very special because first off, it was winter, which is always better for shells, second, the full moon means the lowest tide of the entire month, and 3rd, it was nicely positioned right in the morning hour, so hunting would be fresh and unpicked.
It could not have been more perfectly aligned!
So, that addresses a common question
When to plan your trip?
- Winter Months
- Lowest low tides (Full and new moon)
- Ideally an early morning low tides
- If you are flexible, after a storm!
We drove across the state of Florida mostly in the dark, but caught a beautiful dawn. How beautiful is Florida! Country roads through farm land in the mist, mossy groves, pastel palms, and oak silhouettes with a setting full moon ahead...
I had read the place to be was Blind Pass, either side of the waterway, but instead I opted for what looked like the less populated Bowman's Beach, which had a bigger parking area, and looked less populated (also high on my list). I made a good call!
My List of Beaches to Hunt (Top to Bottom)
- Blind Pass / Turner Beach
- Bowman's Beach
- Captiva Beach
- Lighthouse Beach
Driving through Sanibel, being a shell lover, is amazing. You can't see the beach, but you know you are there. Everything from the coffee shops to home mailboxes have giant shells on them, its awesome.
I arrived at Bowman's State Beach at about 7:30 AM (wish I got there a tiny bit sooner) to find a relatively empty and large parking lot (which was huge compared to other spots I checked later in the day), with lots of palms and shade, parked, paid for parking (with a card, like $5 or something, worth every penny). So easy.
It was chilly when I got there, I was in light jeans and a light jacket, I had no buckets or shovels or anything. I only had eagerness and pockets. I first just wanted to scope it out, make sure I found a good spot. I thought I would pop down to the beach and have a look.
First off, I was shocked to see a mom and her daughter coming back to the lot with a grocery bag full of shells!! They were not giddy about the shells, but appeared to be local huntresses, like this was the morning routine... I was frothing.
I followed the quiet palm draped walk-way, passed the nice bathrooms, crossed over the wooden foot bridge through the seaside scrub to the beach... WOW!! Right away, tons of shells, loads of them! And also a lot of beach combers, but it didn't matter. I was right into it and I lasted ALL day :)
Here's what I got for ya...
There was a lot of activity at Bowman's, and I assume the low-tide full moon brought out all the serious local hunters. Bowman's is an excellent place to walk for many miles, with little to no development, so the crowd thins out considerably only half a short walk north. The further from the entrance from the parking lot to the beach, the less and less people - the more and more shells!
I also highly recommend the spot for the large and shaded parking, the nice bathrooms, and there are even shaded picnic tables. It's lovely, truly.
This was my very first time to the gulf coast, so I considered myself a total newbie to this array of specimens and I was excited about what I would guess to be the common shells.
I definitely had an idea of the types of shells I could find, based on the hunters in the area sharing and the many lists of shells to find. I think it was good to have that in mind, so I could keep my eye out for certain colors or patterns, but really, I was just pure treasure hunting. Anything and everything that caught my eye got my full curious attention. What fun to feel like a child!
My first surprise was there are SO many scallop and clam shells, it is unreal. It seemed they were not high on the list of pick-ups, but they were all so bright and beautiful! And the sheer quantity of them, with all of their amazing colors and was fascinating. I was enthralled in the first piles I found, knowing it was only going to get better.
Some scallops on Sanibel
For the first time in my life I realized where so many of the shells sold in stores, used on crafts, shown in books come from... Florida. Maybe they all come from Asia now, but shells I had seen my whole life, but never on beach were lying all over the beach!
With the tide so low, I followed some fellow combers and decided to wade and hunt in the water. The water was murky, but you could still see clearly within about a half foot.
On that note... I had read to bring a snorkel and mask to do some water hunting, but it would not have worked, the water was too murky to see. I don't know if it was the season or the water quality that day, but the clarity was very poor and snorkel for shelling would not have worked. Might be better for that in the summer. This day was all about the low tide to get the most beach exposure and finding shell patches that were not yet dug through, which was not even hard at all. I felt like I was combing through tons of virgin patches, and I was finding tons of awesome shells too!
This was for sure one of my best finds, a decent sized cone shell washing amongst it! A little local shell guide I perused said these are becoming less common, and are considered rare.
There is a pretty little white one...
One of my favorites! The beautiful Banded Tulip is in excellent condition
Some beautiful olives, very shiny!
What to Bring?
Honestly, I was pretty unprepared. With that said, I know what I should have brought, and will bring next time!
Clothes: Go in layers from swimsuit or light weight tank-top to a light jacket or sweater. Even though it was chilly in the morning and afternoon, I would have gone out in shorts, I was so hot by 11:00 I wanted to rip my pants off. I was also caught getting a farmers tan and sweating a lot, would have been nice to have a tank top on, or just cruise in a swim suit - most people were!
Hat: Unless you are working on your highlights, bring a huge-ass hat.
Shoes: Sandals, to then be deposited into a bag for beaching barefoot.
Bags or bucket: For shells of course. Various sized ziplocks and also tupperwares or hard containers to avoid breaks. A bucket is great, but can be tipped over.
Scooper: I never tried one of these, but I imagine it would have been very fun. Maybe it just gets in the way? I have always felt that bending over to hand-pick is part of the divine therapy of shelling. But I would never turn-down the chance to try a scooper.
Snack and Water: I walked so far from the car without any snacks or water. I was not expecting to go that far, but I did. Wish I had them.
Sunscreen/Sunglasses: The usual stuff for beaching.
Camera: Usually my best shell photos are at the beach, I use my iphone
Tips for finding good ones
So many people just walk and look down. That is not going to get you the good ones. You need to get down there (face close to the beach) and look carefully in the piles, dig, dig, dig, and also look in the water.
All of the good ones I found were either rolling around in the water or found underneath piles digging. The banded tulip, one of my finest, was digging in a pile pretty high from the tide, which means hundreds of people had already walked by it that morning!
- Look in the water
- Look at the waterline patches, dig
- Look for patches of shells that do not look like they have been pawed at
- Dig ;)
The simple beauties...
Found my first-ever whelks! Love being a newbie.
I spent the entire day at the beach, with a short intermission for lunch and scoping out Turner Beach / Blind Pass to the North. It was only a few miles drive up the island. Both sides of Blind Pass have tiny lots, with little parking and were both packed when I checked them. It was Friday afternoon... so it was expected to be busy! I was very lucky to get a spot on my second go-around. The tide was high when I went, so I definitely missed prime-picking. Overall the shell quantity was less and everything above the tide line had been thoroughly dug through.
The area is all residential from there going north (if a 20 million dollar 3rd home counts as a residence?!), so in general there are more people about on the beach. Going South, eventually you hit Bowman's, that stretch is a wonderful place to hunt!
I can't wait to plan my next trip to Sanibel!
When I got home I arranged some of my favorite finds on a peachy colored tile patio. Peachy colored things are probably my favorite thing about Florida!
I hope you find some treasures out there!