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A Beginner's Guide to Collecting Seashells as a Hobby

Tricia Deed has spent many years swimming in different types of waters. It is her favorite summer activity.

Looking to take up a new hobby? Collecting seashells just might be it!

Looking to take up a new hobby? Collecting seashells just might be it!

Collecting Seashells

Warm weather attracts many people to the seashore for water activities. The ocean is attractive for boating, jet skiing, scuba diving, treasure hunting, swimming, surfing, skiing, and any other water sports and activities.

But some of us like to walk along the seashore looking and discovering shells. Collecting shells has been an active hobby for amateurs and a vocation for professionals for many years.

Any age can enjoy this pastime. As you collect these beautiful natural wonders, your curiosity will lead you to self-education as to the name of the shell, what organism grows in it, how it is classified and so on. You may choose to collect as an individual or you may choose to join clubs and gain new friends who enjoy the same interest.

There are many natural museums that house shells. Collecting shells exist on an international scale.

If seeking shells is new to you, I highly recommend that you visit a local museum before walking the beaches. The education that you will receive will help you to identify various shells. The museums, as well as your state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will inform you of shells permitted for collection.

We had collected shells on the beaches of Sanibel Island located in Florida and there are restrictions on collecting shells that have living inhabitants. There are fines and penalties for gathering these living shells.

In the state of Florida, it is prohibited to have in possession the Queen Conch if the organism has been killed, mutilated, or removed from its shell before collecting. The international rulings regard the Queen Conch as an endangered species.

This article will cover the following topics:

  • An explanation of seashells
  • Equipment needed to begin collecting shells
  • How to use your seashells around the house
  • Collecting seashells via photos
  • How to clean and store shells
  • The best beaches in Florida for shell collecting
One of many types of spiral shells found on the beach.

One of many types of spiral shells found on the beach.

What Is a Shell?

The shell itself is composed of calcium carbonate and it houses soft-bodied creatures called mollusks. The shell is the external skeleton of the organism. When the organism has died and is no longer in the shell it is not uncommon for another marine life to enter the empty shell and make its home.

While wading in the water at Sanibel Island I had picked up a shell that was lying on the bottom of the ocean. It felt heavy but I gave it no thought until the mollusk within started moving. Its movement startled me and the shell fell out of my hand returning to the ocean floor where I left it.

A beachcomber's collection of assorted sea shells.

A beachcomber's collection of assorted sea shells.

Shell Collecting Equipment

The beaches of Sanibel are loaded with shells. One has to keep their eyes open to pick the prettiest one on the beach or keep your eyes peeled for a particular type of shell.

The best times to collect shells are at low tide or after a storm. Hurricanes bring in the best seashells.

Equipment or supplies which you may want to bring with you include:

  1. A small shovel to dig deeper into the wet sand
  2. A small bucket or a cloth bag
  3. A mesh screen to rid sand or mud
  4. A field guide book

For added information stop at local museums or seek library books for shell identification.

Two sea shells mounted to hold a tea candle. The base has been accented with other types of sea shells.

Two sea shells mounted to hold a tea candle. The base has been accented with other types of sea shells.

How You Can Use Your Seashells

The real purpose of the shell is to protect and house its living organism.

What do human beings do with the shells they collect?

  1. Make jewelry and other personal adornments.
  2. Craft articles
  3. Home décor and outdoor decor
  4. Eating utensils
  5. Calcium for gardens
  6. Assorted containers
  7. Tools
  8. Coins
  9. Furniture
  10. Artist paintings
  11. Collecting shells for their natural historic significance
Hermit crab moving along within his portable shell.

Hermit crab moving along within his portable shell.

Photo Colection of Seashells

For the most part, seashell collectors do not present any problems to the shortage of seashells. The animals that house these shells are in greater threat from natural disasters such as hurricanes, which can kill millions of these creatures in one storm.

But if you are concerned you may wish to photograph a shell collection. To help validate the photo, an occasional shell may need to be removed from the beach for validation.

Photographing the living organisms is gaining popularity. Documenting and cataloging their habitats is also a great help. As more amateurs take an interest in collecting with photos they may be a great help to scientists who are concerned about extinction, environmental pollution, and other types of changes that affect our oceans and beaches.

Clean your seashells and restore their original color or colors to capture their original beauty created by nature.

Clean your seashells and restore their original color or colors to capture their original beauty created by nature.

How to Clean and Store Shells

  1. If the shells contain no animal life soak in a 50/50 solution of bleach and water. This solution will help dissolve algae, dirt, and odor which is clinging to the shell. There is no set time for soaking. Check periodically on the cleaning process.
  2. After soaking, if there are any barnacles or crusts of any sort use a sharp instrument or a toothbrush to scrape unwanted debris from the shell. Use a grinder to smooth away uneven or cut edges. This is a good time to drill holes into the shells being used for jewelry making or other shell crafts.
  3. Boil shells until they are clean.
  4. Let them sit in your yard allowing insects and the weather to do the cleaning.
  5. Rub with baby oil or mineral oil to give shells a shiny surface.
  6. Store shells in any container, cabinet or draw.

Clean collected shells before taking any return trips to home which includes airplanes, cruise ships, or any other long term travel. The suitcases will release unfavorable odors if shells are not thoroughly cleaned.

What's That Shell? Identifying Common Seashells

Shell Collecting Times

We want to collect the best seashells or perhaps specific types of shells. Check ahead with vacation beach locations online or with natural museums to locate the best beaches for shell collecting and shells specific to their location. Use beaches that have inlets. The narrow inlets trap and funnel shells towards the shore.

Check weather forecasts for wind direction and tides. Winds pushing waves toward the seashore, after a storm has passed, and low tide in the morning or evening are the best times to search the shoreline.


Best Florida Beaches for Collecting Seashells

These are listed as the 5 best locations for collecting seashells. The best time to collect shells is at low tide and after storms. Hurricanes bring in large amounts of shells.

Name of ParkLocation

Sanibel and Captiva Island

West of Ft. Myers

Cedar Key

50 miles SW of Gainesville

Little Talbot Island State Park

Jacksonville

Honeymoon Island

Tampa

Jupiter Island Coral Cove State Park

West Palm Beach

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the official term for a shell collector?

Answer: The official term for a shell collector is a "conchologist". This is one who collects and studies the shells.

Question: I inherited a queen conch shell and am interested in selling it. Where could I expect to find a seller?

Answer: Selling queen conch shells can be sold in the same manner as any article for sale. The amount of commission that would be paid to the seller often times determines the cost and the worthiness of selling through a seller. More monies would be earned by selling directly to a private party. You may wish to start by asking friends, neighbors, and other people you come in contact with if they may be interested in purchasing the shell or do they know anyone else who might be?

If this method if not of interest then consider any of the many online retailers.

Question: When you buy a sand dollar, has an animal been killed to get the shell? How about a queen conch?

Answer: To my knowledge, no animals are killed. The sand dollar is dead, cleaned, and refined for retailing. In the state of Florida, where I live, it is illegal to collect or harvest the queen conch. Too many have been removed from both shallow and deep depths by commercial and recreational fishing and diving enthusiasts.

Question: What things do you need to collect seashells?

Answer: Review any information about shell collecting which is pertinent to the seashore where you will be searching. Become very familiar with what not to collect. Carry this list and pictures if you need to in order not to break any laws. Carry a bucket or any type of easy carry container for the shells. I do not think it is necessary, but you may wish to wear a pair of gloves. Sunglasses and a hat to ward away sun glare. Wear sunscreen. After rinsing shells with ocean water, I recommend a closed container for the return trip home. Clean the shells properly in the home environment. Depending on the time of the day, you may wish to have a camera available to capture sunrise or sunset. It will be a beautiful memory to add to your shell treasure hunting.

Question: Where is a nice museum in the Fort Lauderdale area for me to go before I start to collect seashells? I am an amateur, and this will be my first time.

Answer: There are about 22 different museums in the Ft. Lauderdale area, but none that specifically feature seashells. The Ft. Lauderdale Great Barrier Reef appears to be the most interesting. The Seashell Museum of Sanibel Island, which unfortunately is in the opposite direction is the largest national sea shell museum. It is worth the trip if you are able to travel.

Comments

Rajoo on May 08, 2019:

Yes, it is interesting to see the different life forms which occupy ocean shells which are a treat to see. At Sanibel Island, Fl one is not allowed to remove any live shells. For me it was a strange sensation when I picked up one of the shells from the floor. It was heavy and sure enough there was a snail-like living organism in the shell. I put it back in the water.

Tricia Deed on April 18, 2018:

Mel,

Yes, it is interesting to see the different life forms which occupy ocean shells which are a treat to see. At Sanibel Island, Fl one is not allowed to remove any live shells. For me it was a strange sensation when I picked up one of the shells from the floor. It was heavy and sure enough there was a snail-like living organism in the shell. I put it back in the water.

Tricia Deed on April 14, 2018:

We did our shell hunting at Sanibel Island in Florida. One would think that looking for shells would be boring; but not so. It is exciting and can become addictive because it is a lot like treasure hunting. Each shell collected seems to have a beautiful story.

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 14, 2018:

Tricia, there is so much fun in collecting sea shells. I lived for awhile in Jacksonville, NC about half an hour from Topsail Island.. We would love to go there, walk the beach and collect shells. My daughter is an artist and has painted a few. Very nice articles that we display on our shelves and tables.

Johan Smulders on July 29, 2015:

An excellent overview!

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on June 17, 2015:

This looks like a fascinating hobby, more from the amateur naturalist point of view for me. I think it would be very interesting trying to figure out which organism was associated with which shell. Great hub.