Conchology: Sea Shells by the Sea Shore

Sea shells on Oak Island NC

Sea Shells on Oak Island NC | Photo by Stephanie Hogston

If you’ve ever been to the beach at any age, you’ve likely practiced Conchology – the hobby of collecting shells. We all love to look for that perfect sea shell to commemorate that perfect day, something tangible we can take home with us that perfectly represents the ocean’s beauty and mystery. At its worst, shelling leads to scenic, long walk along the beach and at its best, it can yield some pretty fantastic beach finds.  Oak Island NC is a wonderful place to search for and collect sea shells – you just have to know a few key elements to take your hunt beyond luck.

Believe it or not, now is the best time to find an abundance of shells in both volume and variety is a day or two after a strong winter storm (such as the one we’ve been having this week!). Of course, the general rule of thumb is that the early bird gets the worm – be out at first light and search slowly (miniature shells may be plentiful but are often overlooked). This explains why I’ve never been great at finding shells! Shelling is also abundant during and after a full moon.

You must also be familiar with the area in which you are shelling. On our island, most experienced shellers would tell you that Caswell Beach and The Point (the very most western end of Oak Island) are the best places to hunt. On the beach, assuming you’re indeed the early bird, you’ll usually find a shell pile at the shoreline, but don’t stop there! The best hidden treasures are typically hiding under grassy piles of seaweed and dark brown sea grasses. Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet either – just off the shoreline in 1-2 feet of water. Above all else, pay close attention to the tides – shelling is always best right after a low tide.

Fun Fact: North Carolina was the first state to name an official State Shell in 1965. The Scotch Bonnet is primarily found on the NC Outer Banks but has been found along all ocean facing beaches in NC at times.

Practicing Responsible Shell Collecting

(From Shell collectors often ask two questions related to shell collecting ethics. Does it harm shell populations to collect living mollusks? And just how much shell collecting is acceptable at any location. Collecting living mollusks is acceptable if it is done in a responsible manner. Because shells rapidly deteriorate once the mollusk dies, it is necessary to collect live specimens in order to obtain the finest samples. There are, however, guidelines to follow in order to protect shell populations.

  • Collect only what you need. Will collecting this shell enhance your collection or the collection of another shell enthusiast? Do not allow yourself to be caught up in the excitement of the moment and make poor choices about which shells you need to keep.
  • Protect the shell population. Collect conservatively. Do not collect living juveniles. Do not take everything you find. Collect specimens only from areas where many of its kind are living. Select one or two representative specimens. Note: This applies also to group collecting. Everyone in a large group collecting one or two living shells has the same effect as one person taking a bucketful!
  • Leave the habitat as undisturbed as possible. Return things to the way they were when you entered the habitat. For example, replace any rocks you turned over. Place the mollusks you decide not to keep back into the environment so they can recover and continue their life cycle.
  • If collecting for scientific purposes, take careful notes regarding the environment and the behavior of the mollusk. The specimen has little scientific value without this information.
  • Learn the local regulations. State and national parks, as well as marine preserves, generally have laws against taking live shells. Some states require a fishing license to collect live shells from public waters. Collecting commercially important species may have additional regulations governing when and where they can be collected and who can do the collecting. There are even regulations regarding the collection of dead shells. Be sure you know the requirements where you are collecting. And, be aware there may even be international regulations that could affect your collecting practices.
  • Respect private property fronting the waters. The waters are public but the land often is not.
  • Appreciate any gifts of nature that come your way. A living shell tossed ashore by waves is dying. There is little chance to return the animal to a habitat where it will recover. Hurling these shells into the ocean is not an effective method of returning them where they can recover! This process is the natural death process and provides the occasional opportunity for a lucky shell collector to add an especially nice shell to his or her collection.
  • Recognize there are many reasons to collect. Aesthetics are what drive the interest in shells for many collectors. Choosing a shell because it would look great on your bookshelf or mantle can be a compelling reason for collecting it.

Collecting shells is enjoyable, whether pursued for scientific purposes or simply because shells are beautiful and appealing. Healthy mollusk populations can withstand the collection of a small portion of the living individuals. As responsible shell collectors, it is important to protect the natural habitats and populations of the shells we love by avoiding over collection and destructive collection practices.

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