Seashelling Vacations
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Seashelling Vacations

Shelling introduces your kids to the wonders of ocean life on shore and reacquaints you with the child within.

Gifts from the Sea

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea ... For grownups and kids alike, just being at the shore is enough. You can make the beach even more enjoyable by giving a sense of mission to the sandy proceedings. Go on a seashelling spree -- you'll have treasure-hunting good fun and come home with marine mementos that really tell a story. Your possibilities are as expansive as the miles of public coastline.

Where to Go

Anywhere the sea meets the land, you can find seashells. The United States boasts one of the world's most famous seashelling areas in Florida. Near Fort Myers, on the Sunshine State's Gulf Coast, Sanibel and Captiva islands attract people from all over to their shell-laden shores. But glorious days of exploring and collecting can be had along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Maine, along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, and along the Pacific Coast from California to Washington. Don't forget Hawaii and Alaska!

Before You Go

Check on restrictions on collecting. A lot of coastline is not open to the public. You should either be on public beaches or have permission to be on private beaches. Be sure that the state, park, or beach does not prohibit seashelling. Some areas prohibit the collection of certain species or limit the places or time of year you can collect. Check with local officials to see if there are restrictions on shell collecting in the area you're planning to go at the time of year you'll be there. Find out if you need a permit.

Invest in a good field guide. You might even want to choose one that's appropriate for the kids and a separate one for grownups. Reading your field guide with the kids before you go will pique your kids' interest and enhance the excitement of the trip. Once you're at the beach, knowing what kind of shell you've discovered and learning about the animal that lived inside it make seashelling even more enjoyable.

A good guide for kids is Seashells, Crabs and Sea Stars, from the Young Naturalist Field Guides series (Gareth Stevens Publishing, Milwaukee, 1998). It's chock-full of information about many species of sea animals that inhabit shells as well as seashell-related activities and tips.

For guides for grownups, search your favorite online bookseller or bookstores for seashelling books or seashell field guides -- there are good ones that cover the entire country or specific regions or states. And Read's article "eHow to Choose a Field Guide for Seashells" for lots of helpful suggestions about looking for guides that are user-friendly, proportioned practically, well-illustrated or clearly photographed. The article also lists several guides that fit the bill.


Seashell Basics

What are Seashells?

Seashells are the outer coverings -- the "exoskeletons" -- of sea animals called mollusks. The shell is actually a chalky juice substance that hardens to protect the soft body of marine creatures like clams, snails, and oysters. All these mollusks live inside the shells or carry them on their backs. When mollusks die, their empty shells wash up on the beach. Not all shells on the sand are empty, though, and it's very important not to disturb or to take shells that still have live animals inside. You can often tell if an animal lives inside by checking for a slimy substance deep inside the opening; the slimy material may well be a sea critter. If you're not certain, ask a more experienced sheller or talk to a lifeguard or environmentalist on the beach.

A Walk on the Beach

Walking on the beach is a glorious experience, and it's even more so when you and the kids are on the hunt for seashells. Their myriad shapes, designs, and colors treat the eyes and inspire the imagination. Heading down the beach at low tide in beautiful filtered light with your bag of seashells, you feel like you're in an impressionist painting. Wading knee deep and slogging back to shore might conjure up images of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Stop for a while and sit in one spot in the wet sand, just sifting through what's in reach. When you find shells, you instantly become a naturalist. Turn their wet spiral, fluted, and scalloped shapes over in your hands. Say words like "whelk," "cockle," "quahog," "coquina," "urchin," and "barnacle." Learn about marine personalities like fiddler, hermit, and ghost crabs; and about mollusk attributes like slimy feet and raspy teeth. Watch behavior like boring and burrowing. Marvel at the intricate beauty of a sand dollar. Finding seashells is as easy as patiently opening up to the amazing and ever-changing seashore. The treasure is all around you in nature and in the moments of wonder you share as a family.

Where, When, and How to Find Shells

  • Don't limit yourself to sandy shores. Provided shelling isn't restricted, you can also search mud flats, tidepools, and reef areas. Beaches with hard surf probably won't be rich with seashells -- that pounding water isn't inviting to shell dwellers and the surf minces the shells into fine sand. Mangrove swamps, estuaries (where fresh water meets salt water), and marshlands are also prime areas for discovering shell dwellers. Be careful not to disturb these sensitive ecosystems. Some people believe that you should never even take "dead" shells -- that they should be left to decay naturally. Take nothing but what's permitted by law and not alive -- and always take care.
  • Low tide is prime shelling time. Check the local papers, park officials, dive shops, or folks at your hotel to find out the time of low tide. Seashelling also tends to be good after a storm.
  • Keep your eyes wide-open and look intently. Carefully turn over rocks and driftwood and you'll find all sorts of seashells. Look into tide pools for the tentacles of tube-dwellers and burrowers. Sort through seaweed. Look for holes left by clams that have withdrawn beneath the sand and for worm tubes extending above the surface. Also look for low muddy cones surrounding a hole, or sandy or muddy castings -- these might indicate sea animals living nearby and the presence of castoff shells in the area.
  • Be careful. Watch the tides so you don't get caught in rising waters. Find a fixed mark on shore to help you stay mindful of the undertow and to realize periodically how much you have drifted down the beach. Don't seashell alone; go as a family or with a partner and keep track of everyone at all times. Have a signal arranged in case someone goes missing (on the beaches in South America, shellers clap to find each other anew).
  • Never take live animals or plants. You can often tell if there's a live animal still in a shell by looking deep into it or by seeing if it feels full. Put "live" shells back as you found them -- that also goes for driftwood, rocks, and sea wood, all of which which might be homes to sea dwellers.
  • Protect yourself. Watch out for sea life that stings, like jellyfish. In mangrove swamps, where you might encounter snakes and alligators, take special precautions and go with a guide. Always watch your footing: rocky shores can be slippery. Never go out where waves are crashing on rocks, where signs warn you to stay out, or where the surf's too rough. Don't go out during a storm. Many shellers wear protective footwear.
  • Protect the seashore and sea life. Don't litter, of course -- garbage has no place on the seashore except in trash containers; it can also kill sea animals. Remember to handle sea animals with great care. Sand dollars and starfish are delicate creatures, and you can hurt horseshoe crabs if you pick them up by the tail. Stay away from coral reefs -- they are sharp, and reefs are living things that are easily damaged by human contact. Don't pull off attached sea creatures or they'll die.
  • Clean seashells. Provided you're absolutely sure your seashell has no living animal inside and that it's legal to collect seashells in the area, you can clean shells by soaking them in a 50-50 bleach-water solution.

Read "eHow to Collect Seashells" for steps, tips, warnings, and suggestions from users for everything from taking an extra plastic grocery bag to pick up trash as you beach comb to making art projects with shells after you get home.


What You Need

A day of seashelling requires the same kind of preparation as a day at the beach, with some special additions.

  • Sun protection. You can lose track of time having a wonderful day at the beach. That potentially means a lot of exposure to the sun. Make sure you carry a brimmed hat for everyone, a white T-shirt (perhaps with long sleeves), and plenty of sunscreen.
  • Foot protection. Wear old tennis shoes or water shoes to protect your feet from sharp objects in the sand. If you're exploring muddy areas, rubber boots will come in handy.
  • Insect repellant. Slathering up with insect repellant will keep those pesky biting sand flies at bay.
  • Drinks. Take along plenty of water and make sure everyone stays hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids even if it doesn't seem particularly sunny or hot.
  • Beachcombing tools. Pack a bag with small shovels, sieve, clam fork, dip net or strainer, a flashlight if you're hunting at night, and maybe an extra bag or two for shells you'll want to take home. If you're in an area that has tide pools, throw in a snorkeling mask; placed on top of the water, it will help you see into it. You can make a sieve by stretching a piece of screen onto a wooden frame (brass will not degrade in the saltwater). You might also take a bucket; fill it part of the way with seawater so you can observe live animals for a while before you put them back. If you're a snorkeler, bring your gear and take your search out into the water, making sure of course not to take live sea animals and that collecting seashells isn't prohibited.