Shell Hunting on Sanibel Island

I’ve never considered myself a shell collector. Sure, I once paddled nearly 200 yards to a secluded islet in the Caribbean on the hunch that there’d be dried up sea urchins, but run-of-the-mill shells? Not me. That conch in my bathroom is just a quirky decoration. But it all hit home when I returned from a recent trip to the Virgin Islands. I heard the familiar rumble of my washing machine as it churned through smooth rocks, sea glass, and salty shells that filled the pockets of my board shorts. So it was official: I’m a shell guy. Lighthouse Beach

I guess that’s why I loved visiting Sanibel Island —14 miles west of Fort Myers off the coast of Florida’s southwestern shore. It’s one of the best places to go shelling in the United States. Call it a function of simple geography: Instead of running parallel to the mainland like most barrier islands, Sanibel is positioned east-to-west like a giant ladle in the Gulf of Mexico. As the currents roll in, so do nearly 275 varieties of seashells-- the most coveted being the brown-spotted junonia and the scallop-shaped lion’s paw. But I didn’t find any of those. Hardly anyone does, but it sure is fun to look.

My search began on Lighthouse Beach. At the far eastern tip of the island you’ll find Sanibel’s sole lighthouse—a conical tower of wired steel meant to allow coastal winds to blow through. It’s a beaut of beacon, as far as lighthouses go, but I was here to find shells. Unfortunately I wasn’t alone. Shells are big business on touristy Sanibel and people come from miles around just to comb the island’s beaches. There was Louisa from Miami, who along with her two kids toted three full pails of ocean treasures; Margo from Fort Myers who unearthed a huge conch; and Phil and Stacy from Boston, who’ve visited Sanibel every year since the mid-80’s just to add to their shell collection. Me? I was just looking for a keeper Big Conch —maybe a nice ribbed cantharus or a gulf oyster drill. And no, I didn’t know what those were before I visited Sanibel either.

Having found a handful of colorful calico scallops, I decided to avoid the crowds and take my search elsewhere. Luckily there were plenty of options. Combined with Captiva—Sanibel’s smaller sister island—the pair have more than 15 miles of public beaches to choose from. But true shell hunters will tell you that it’s not necessarily where you go shelling, but when you go. Some suggest low tide, since a greater portion of the shoreline is visible; others hit the beach after a storm, when the winds and waves uncover shells previously buried beneath the sand. All good suggestions, but I didn’t have the luxury of being picky. This was a three-day trip—long enough to leave with a tan, but not quite the stay of loyal shelling veterans.

Heading west I enlisted some expert advice and who better to ask then the folks at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum? Open in its new location for eleven years, the museum is devoted to shells of all kinds, with a full one-third of its exhibitions featuring specimens native to Sanibel and Captiva. It’s a massive place, one that my two-year-old niece would love, so as I perused the gift shop for a trinket to bring her. I posed the question of all questions for conch-lovers, and their ilk: “Where’s the best place to go shelling?” The kind lady who works behind the counter must get this all the time, because her simple reply was, “Wherever your feet are, of course!” So much for expert advice. Sensing my frustration she blurted out a tip, “Try Gulfside City Park, I hear folks are do Sanibel Shells ing well there today.”

A ten-minute drive later I’m there. The south coast beach is buzzing with kids and families out for a swim, and the shell lady was right—I’ve hit the jackpot. Because the sand slopes gently into the sea, the beach at Gulfside City Park allows shell-hunters to safely wade in knee-deep water, uncovering hundreds, if not thousands, of shells with their toes. Instantly, I find dozens of Atlantic giant cockles and delicates rose petal tellins. A little later I dig up tiny Cayenne keyholes and spindly ladder horn snails. Eureka!

With every step I take, more and more shells appear-- and by now my pockets are bursting. It’s a worthy take, but I still haven’t found anything bigger than my pinky finger. Suddenly I glance toward the shorelin, and there it is—a six-inch lightening whelk, so named because of its brown zig-zagging stripes. It might not be as rare as a junonia or as colorful as a lion's paw, but it’s big and it’s pretty and it looks great next to that conch in my bathroom.


What to Know Before You Go

>> Much like the Caribbean, peak season on Sanibel Island is from December through April so expect to find bargains in the spring, summer, and fall when hotel rates drop.

>> At the Tarpon Tale Inn—a bungalow-style hotel near Lighthouse Beach—a one-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and private patio costs $149 in May and $119 from June 1 through December 16. The same room in peak season rents for $189, but no matter when you go, a double room at the hotel always includes two adult bicycles for the duration of your stay—which is perfect considering there are more than 23 miles of bike paths on the island. (888/345-0939, tarpontale.com).

 

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