Shelling on the Beaches of Sanibel, Florida
Atlantic Giant Cockle
After One Morning of Shelling on Sanibel....
Tiny Treasures of Sanibel
Shelling at Sunset on Sanibel
Those Who Love Shells Love Sanibel
Sanibel is a subtropical island in the Gulf of Mexico, connected by a modern causeway to the city of Fort Myers in southwest Florida. Famous for the types and amounts of shells on its beaches, Sanibel is the home of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum where world-record-sized shells from many nations are displayed. It offers an all-color online guide to the shells of southwest Florida -- which are many and beautiful.
Sanibel is about twelve miles long and unusual among Gulf islands because it extends to the east and west, with a long southern shore that is almost all public beach. This beach draws shell collectors from all over the world. The water will literally engulf your feet in waves of shells, mostly small scallops and clams. Shelling is best at low tide: click here for the today's tides in Southwest Florida.
Scattered thickly on this public beach are thousands of translucent golden and brown Rough Pen Shells and Saw-Tooth Pen Shells, about the size of men's shoe soles! These are so common that most people do not collect them. Children playfully use them to decorate fanciful sandcastles or forts or use them to spell out names or messages.
Also common on the southern Sanibel beaches is the Atlantic Giant Cockle, a scallop up to four inches across with a shell checkered, as if digitally, in a mosaic pattern of brown, gold, and white. Medium-sized scallop shells include the Calico Scallop, Bay Scallop, and the rarer Painted Egg Cockle. Scallop shells may be red, orange, yellow, pink, dramatic black, and plain white. Types of clamshells to be found are the translucent Tiger lucine and the familiar, chalky-shelled Southern Quahog, and the Southern Surf Clam.
Those are the bivalves, or the clam type of shells. The rarer and smaller shells are the homes of gastropods, snail-like sea creatures. The glossy, tea-colored Florida Fighting Conch shell is about the largest you will find. The sheller can also find "True Tulip" and a "Banded Tulip" shells, long-tailed "Lightning Whelk" shells up to four inches long, and two kinds of murex: the frilly Apple Murex and the cream-colored Gulf Oyster Drill. The Lettered Olive is a long, tightly wound shell with hieroglyphic-type markings.
Venus clams and Angel-wing clams like to bury themselves in the sand on the eastern tip of the island, near the nineteenth-century Point Ybel lighthouse. On the island's mostly private north side, I found Atlantic Kitten Paw shells and oyster shells.
The most prized of Sanibel shells is the Junonia, white with black spots, usually found only in the water at depths of several meters, and very rarely on the beach.
Sanibel beaches also feature Hermit crabs, blue crabs, spiny sea urchins, small chunks of sponge and coral, and the snakelike egg cases laid by the Lightning Whelk. Sandpipers and egrets dine at the shore or pelicans and gulls in the water. Shells can be collected during all hours at the water line; they are also piled up at the high-tide line. I find shelling is best near the San Ybel Lighthouse and after big storms.
No motorized vehicles, Jet Skis or Ski-Doos are allowed on or near the Sanibel beaches. This keeps things peaceful. The main rule for shellers is: You may not collect shells containing live creatures. The J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which takes up most of the marshy northern half of Sanibel Island, is open to visitors on foot, bike, or in kayaks, but no shell collecting is permitted there.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Sylvia Sky.