A Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashells

A Beachcomber’s Guide to Seashells

A little girl gathers seashells at Carolina Beach

What are the best beaches for finding shells in North Carolina? Collectors say Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Ocracoke Island, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks, Hammocks Beach State Park near Bogue Sound, and the inlets near Wrightsville Beach are all excellent places to get in some walking and search for just-washed-up specimens. You can find shells here year-round, but after an early-spring storm or during hurricane season are particularly good times for shelling. One hour before and one hour after low tide are prime shelling time.

If low tide comes at an inconvenient time, or you don’t want to try and beat the other shell collectors to the beach, here’s a suggestion: Go to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Besides a variety of exhibits on maritime heritage, the museum has an impressive collection of more than 1,000 seashells and they often take visitors on guided natural history tours.

Here’s our guide to some of the shells you’re most likely on North Carolina’s beautiful beaches.

Scotch Bonnet
The creamy white-colored shell has yellowish brown squares in rows and 20 spiral grooves on the body. It ranges in size from 1.5 to 4 inches. The Queen Helmet is a giant version of the Scotch Bonnet that can be as big as 10 inches. Its shell is mostly cream-colored outside with a rich chocolate brown interior. The lip, also called the shield, is large and contains 10 “teeth.”

Lightning Whelk
This grayish-white shell has uneven purple brown streaks and can be recognized by its left-handed spiral. It can range in size from 4 to 16 inches.

Channeled Whelk
Purple streaks lace the creamy yellow gray surface of this 8- to 12-inch shell, known as a collector’s favorite.

Keyhole Sand Dollar
This round sea urchin is tan to light brown and ranges in size from 5 to 6 inches. Its five slots look like keyholes.

Giant Tun
Even though North Carolina is the northern edge of this mollusk’s range, you might get lucky. The white or light brown shell, 5 to 7 inches long, is a rarity because its very thin shell is so fragile.

Saw-Toothed Pen Shell
Look for this rough-and-tumble shell after a winter storm. Also thin and fragile, it has a 6- to 10-inch shell that’s ridged and colored a deep, smoky brown.

Moon Snail
The carnivorous creature that left behind this shell consumed three-to-four small clams per day. A moon snail shell measures 2 to 3.5 inches, has four or five whorls, and is typically lead gray with a glossy finish.

Banded Tulip
This smooth, gracefully shaped beauty has a moderately thin shell. Colors range from pearly gray with splotches of olive green or tan. It may also have dark brown bands in parallel lines around the shell, and can be from 2 to 4 inches.

Malia Kline

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