Sanibel Island is world renowned for its shelling beaches and considered to be one of the Top 3 shelling beaches in the world. On any of its seventeen miles of beach, Sanibel reveals an abundance of shells that will take your breath away.
Why Sanibel Is Unique
Lying in the Gulf of Mexico, with a unique east-west orientation, Sanibel’s sandy shores act as a natural “net” for shells traveling northward in the current. Each day a new type of shell seems to dominate the beach and every day holds a new experience. The types of shells on the beach vary according to the time of year.
LIVE SHELLING IS ILLEGAL!
Do not take live shells, including sea urchins, sea stars (star fish) and sand dollars. Taking live shells is illegal, the fines hefty ($500 PER SHELL for a first offense), and the law is enforced.
The rule of thumb is that if it is alive; look and gently return it to the water. Please don’t throw live shells, as this can maim or kill the creature. Leaving live shells ensures that there will continue to be shells on our islands for years to come.
When & Where To Shell
We’re often asked by visitors when is the best time to shell. The ideal combination is an exceptionally low tide during a full moon with a northwest wind, two or three days after a storm during high-season. Since all of these conditions are not likely to occur all at the same time, shellers happily settle for any one of them. Not all shells are on the beach – get out into the water and wade slowly.
There’s no avoiding the fact that the number and variety of shells is greater during the winter months, thanks to the northwest winds at that time of year. However, no matter what time of year you visit, you’ll always be able to find something that will thrill you and make a wonderful souvenir of your vacation.
The best time of day for shelling is dependent on the tides. Low tide, +/- 30 minutes is always the best time as the receding water exposes sandbars and leaves behind troughs that often hold a wide variety of both shells and sea life. A local tide chart, customizable to your vacation dates, can be found at BestofSanibelCaptiva.com. Print one specifically for your dates and bring it along.
Best Location? Right out your door at West Wind Inn! Should you decide to explore the public beaches on Sanibel and Captiva, be sure to check our map and descriptions of each toward the end of this page.
Attire & Equipment
Besides the usual beach necessities (hat, sunscreen, water, sunglasses) there are a few extra items to consider:
• Water Shoes or Old Sneakers – Strongly recommended! Cutting your foot on a sharp piece of shell can result in a nasty infection. Not the way you want to spend your vacation.
• A container to carry your finds – sand pails, mesh bags or plastic grocery bags work well.
• Shell Nets and Sanibel “Snow Scoops” – Sold in several local stores, some people swear by them for digging and scooping especially at the surf line.
A Brief Intro To Mollusks
A sea shell is actually the outer skeleton of an animal called a mollusk. Since the animal has no bone structure, he protects himself by taking calcium from the water and sand and making a thin secretion that covers his soft body. These layers harden immediately and gradually form the shell.
Mollusks are divided into two groups: univalves and bivalves.
Univalves have one shell, generally spiral shaped. The animal is usually a snail and lives curled inside the shell attached by an extremely strong muscle. When threatened, the snail draws itself into the shell, sealing it with the bottom of the foot, called an operculum. The operculum is a hard material similar to human fingernails.
Bivalves are two shells hinged together. Strong muscles attached the animal to both sides of the shell. When threatened, this animal snaps it shell shut.
Common Sanibel Shells
Amazingly, Sanibel boasts 200+ species of sea shells. Do you know a cone from a fighting conch? How about the difference between a banded and true tulip? We highly recommend visiting the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum while you’re here along with a visit to their website. The listing of Southwest Florida Shells, complete with photos, is an excellent resource for identifying and learning about your finds.
Miniatures & Baby Shells
Kneel or sit on the beach, look closely, and you’ll discover a whole other universe of shells – miniatures and baby shells. Miniatures are as big as they will ever get, while Baby Shells are perfect little versions of their older, bigger selves. Many people are surprised to learn that miniatures account for roughly three quarters of all shell species identified.
You can find miniatures just about anywhere, at any time of the year. Developing an eye for them has an added bonus; you will find yourself slowing down yet another notch as you move into a smaller world.
Every sheller dreams of finding a rare specimen for their collection. On Sanibel, the odds favor that more than almost anywhere else in the world. Again, what you finding is a matter of luck, but rest assured that you have as good of a chance as any expert of being in the right place at the right time.
Among the most sought after shells:
Junonia: A creamy white shell with brown to orange, squared spots. Not really native to the islands, the Junonia lives at depths up to 200 feet, where it is not rare. It is frequently brought up in shrimp nets, which explains why there are many available in local shell shops. What is rare is the shell washing up on the beach. The Gulf beaches, during the winter months are your best bet for finding one.
Lion’s Paw: If the Junonia is a sheller’s dream, the Lion’s Paw is the Holy Grail. Like the Junonia, this scallop isn’t native to the islands, but thrives in deep water. After a strong storm, you might find a single valve (half) on the beach. The shell is beautiful, rather heavy for its size and quite strong. There are 7-9 ribs, marked with smaller “riblets” and bumps. Lion’s Paws are usually a deep, red wine color. Yellow and orange colors are possible, but extremely rare.
Common Sundial: Despite the name, there is nothing common about the Sundial. Circular and dome shaped, the Sundial has 6 or 7 whorls with several “beaded” cords of purples and browns. The base color is whitish grey or tan. Chances of finding one on the beach are slim at any time of the year, but not impossible.
Scotch Bonnet: This beauty, which grows to a size of 2” to 4”, likes to dine on Sea Urchins and Sand Dollars and therefore lives in shallow water. A sturdy shell, it is rounded with 5 whorls and a short, pointed nose. Base color is creamy white with square, light brown spots.
Knobless Wonder: Also called Bumpless Wonder, this rare specimen is not a deformed Horse Conch missing its bumps, but rather a different, smaller variety. Growing up to 18”, the Knobless Wonder is very rare, only living in the waters around Sanibel and Captiva and occasionally as far south as Marco Island.
Echinoderms – Sand Dollars, Sea Urchins, Sea Stars
Mollusks aren’t the only interesting creatures you may encounter as you explore the Gulf and beach. Echinoderms are a group of marine animals with a lime based shell and/or spines that serve as the skeleton and creature’s protection. All adult Echinoderms have a star pattern, formed by either the creature itself, like the Sea Star, or the pattern in the shell like Sand Dollars and Sea Urchins.
Please note that all Echinoderms are covered under the Live Shelling Laws and may NOT be taken.
Parking at all Sanibel and Captiva public beaches is $2.00 per hour and strictly enforced. Handicapped parking is free with a valid permit or license plate.
Lighthouse Beach & Fishing Pier – Located on the eastern tip of Sanibel and wrapping around to the bay side. The historic, working lighthouse, t-dock fishing pier and a boardwalk nature trail winding through native wetlands are all located here. Public restrooms and a foot wash are available. A good place to look for miniature shells!
Gulfside City Park / Algiers Beach – Picnic tables and a wide, beautiful beach are on Algiers Lane off Casa Ybel Road. Public restrooms and a foot wash are available.
Tarpon Bay / Trost Beach – Located at the southern end of Tarpon Bay Road at West Gulf Drive (Knapp’s Point). Large lot for easy parking off of Tarpon Bay Road before West Gulf Drive with a short hike to the beach. Handicapped parking is in a separate lot next to the boardwalk to the beach. Public restrooms and a foot wash are available.
Bowman’s Beach – Located toward the northern tip of the island, turn off San-Cap Road onto Bowman’s Beach Road. Pristine and quiet, you won’t find any hotels here. Park and walk over a bridge to secluded white beach. Outdoor showers, foot wash areas and large public restrooms are available as well as a children’s play area and extensive fitness trail.
Blind Pass – Located just before the bridge to Captiva. A wide, beautiful beach, popular for fishing and watching sunset. Portable restrooms are available. Parking is very limited.
Turner Beach – The Captiva side of Blind Pass, this beach is popular with shellers and fishermen. No swimming due to swift currents and rocks. Restrooms are available.
Captiva Beach – Located at the end of Captiva Drive just past the entrance to South Seas Island Resort. Another great place to watch the sunset. Parking is extremely limited.