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Central and South Florida Gastropod Seashell Identification Guide: Shell Collecting

This guide should serve to teach the public how to identify local Central and South Florida gastropod seashells.

Collecting Shells

You need very little specialized equipment to go shelling.  However, it is suggested you bring the following:

  • Boots or enclosed water sandals with hard soles.  Flip-flops won't cut it!  Shell beaches are often full of small, broken shells that can get caught in your soles.  Some shells, like pen shells, are covered with sharp barnacles that can cut your bare feet.  Boots are the most ideal for comfort's sake.
  • A mesh bag.  Shells can get heavy and you'll want your hands free.  Move your shells to the mesh bag.
  • Two towels.  One is for drying yourself; the other is hopefully a long, thin beach blanket.  If you happen to find a more fragile shell you can wrap the shell in a fold of the thin beach blanket to protect it.
  • A hat.
  • Sunscreen.  Protect yourself from the Florida sun!
  • A flashlight.  Sometimes you may find yourself shelling while it's dark.  Some people prefer head-mounted lights to keep their hands free.
  • Bug repellant.  Some beaches are often found on the other side of mangrove channels, which are often filled with bugs.
  • A sand flea rake.  Some shelling beaches are covered with innumerable small shells; larger shells may be hidden underneath them.   A drag of a sand flea rake may reveal hidden treasures.

While you can improve your chances at shell collection by picking out times, there are also some places known for their shelling:

  • Sanibel Island:  Perhaps the most famous location for shelling in the United States.  The largest shells are often snapped up quickly by the locals, so planning is key.  Bowman's Beach is a quiet, little-visited beach that should be an excellent choice for the novice.
  • Marco Island:  Just northwest of the Everglades National Park, Marco Island is a great place to pick up shells before they're washed towards the keys.  Tigertail Beach is a small beach with access to a quiet lagoon just before the beach proper.
  • Jupiter Island:  A beach on the Atlantic side of Florida.  Atlantic storms often wash shells onto the beach in large numbers.
  • The Florida Keys:  The Keys are not places you can find shells washed up on the beaches- the shores are rocky.  Most shelling enthusiasts find shells while snorkeling around the Lower Keys.  Be very careful about collecting shells from the Keys- in some locations it may be illegal, or a very large hermit crab (like the finger-crushing Giant Marine Hermit Crab) may be inside!

Additionally, you should focus your efforts on specific areas of the beach:

  • Just above the low tide mark:  You'll find most shells just above the water line.  Shells that have been washed up further are more likely to be picked up by other shellers or worn to pieces by wave action.
  • Tide pools:  High tides, waves, and winds will often change the shape of the beach.  Small pools of water may be found past the tide line, where stranded shells may often be found.
  • Mangrove channels and mud flats:  The author has personally had a lot of luck finding King's Crown (Melongena corona) around footbridges built over mangrove channels. Most shellers don't think to check the mud!  

It's a common misconception that the best time to shell is in the very early morning.  Instead you should focus on the tides, the weather, and the moon.

  • The Tides:  You should plan your shelling expedition around low tide, plus or minus an hour.  At this point the water is furthest from the beach and will have left shells exposed.  You can use the NOAA Tide Predictions Tool to determine the best time to shell.
  • After Storms:  A northwestern storm tends to wash specimens into the low tide range.  You'll want to hit the beach as soon as it's safe and practical, and as close to a low tide as possible.  Keep an eye on weather sites like The Weather Channel for potential profitable storms.
  • The Moon:  Full and new moons amplify the effects of tides- the lowest low tides will occur during these times.  You can use the NOAA Astronomical Data Tool to find a list of dates for full and new moons.

This guide presumes you will be looking for dead specimens, but it is possible to find species by live shelling:  finding a living mollusc, then killing and removing the animal.  Some people find this to be unethical; in some counties it is outright prohibited.  Regardless, live shelling in Florida requires a recreational saltwater fishing license.  

Learn more about your local shelling laws here:

You'll note that most of the shells you find won't be the beautiful kind you see in museums or in storefronts.  Your shells will often be bleached, weathered, and/or encrusted by barnacles and tube worms.  Here are some steps you can take to clean them up:

  • Wash them with fresh water.
  • Soak them in a solution of 50% water to 50% household bleach.  Avoid using bleach on shells that are already shiny (like the Olive snails), because it will damage the finish. 
  • Scrub the shell with a toothbrush.  Removing barnacles and tubeworms may require dental picks and a lot of patience.
  • Sometimes your shells can be covered with a white layer that hides the natural color.  This is calcium deposition.  You can remove this by quickly boiling your shell in a mixture of 1 part vinegar, 3 parts water, followed by a quick rinse.
  • You can remove calcium deposition with a very quick dip in 10% hydrochloric acid (often referred to as muriatic acid), followed by a quick dunking into fresh water and then another rinse.  Just like with bleach, never use this on shells that are already shiny.  This is controversial because hydrochloric acid still damages the shell- it works by literally dissolving the top layer- so use your best judgment.  If you're collecting seashells with the hopes of reselling them, it is suggested to avoid using hydrochloric acid.
    Warning- hydrochloric acid can be dangerous.  Protect your eyes with safety glasses and your hands with nitrile gloves!
  • After you've finished cleaning the shell, you can coat the shell with a thin layer of mineral oil to bring out the natural color.