Tips for Finding Sea Shells on Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast is renowned as the top beach destination in North America for finding sea shells. The island is only 12 miles long and most of it is lined by gorgeous beaches covered in sea shells. Its neighboring island to the north, Captiva, is smaller, but equally good for shelling.

But before you go just willy nilly grabbing sea shells off the beach, let’s talk about which beaches are best and why Sanibel is one of the best places in the world to find sea shells.

Walking along a beach on Sanibel Island Florida

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Why So Many Sea Shells on Sanibel Island

When walking along the beaches of Sanibel Island looking for sea shells, you have to ask yourself “Why here?” Where do all of these shells come from?

Here’s the answer: A few miles out into the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a continental shelf that apparently mollusks just love to call home. Literally billions of mollusks live on an 80-mile stretch of the Gulf’s floor. I’m told there are more mollusks in the ocean than there are fish and other critters combined. That’s a lot of shells.

So here sits Sanibel and Captiva just waiting for the waves, the tides and the occasional storm to stir things up and bring those shells up to the beaches for you and me to admire. And pick up. Or leave alone.

Shelling is quite the business on Sanibel Island. Every grocery store, convenience store or souvenir shop sells a variety of long handled scoops so you don’t have to bend over all of the way. If you hunt for shells for very long, you develop what’s known as the Sanibel Stoop. And a backache.

You might also want to pick up a guide to know what it is you are picking up.

But to seriously understand about shells, where they come from and what they can be used for, you must plan for several hours at the National Shell Museum.

The Bailey-Matthew National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, Florida

People on Sanibel Island are nuts about sea shells. We saw mailboxes decorated with sea shells; a car decorated with sea shells and dishes of sea shells in restaurants, hotels, and condos. They worked together and on land donated in memory of Frank P. Bailey and Annie Mead Matthews, the nation’s first shell museum opened in 1995. It is now accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

The National Shell Museum has more than 500,000 shells, but you will soon learn that there are lots of different kinds of shells. There are mollusks and scallops and clams and conch and oyster and so on. The study of all of this is called Conchology or Malacology. That was all new to me.

I did not know this: an octopus is a mollusk. In the aquarium added to the museum in 2020, there is a Giant Pacific Octopus, a critter with nine hearts and eight legs. Watch him live 24/7 on the OctoCam at the National Shell Museum.

Why Sea Shells are Important

If you’re reading this on your phone, notice that you probably don’t have any scratches on your screen. You know why? Scientists figured out how to make your phone scratch resistant and still sensitive to the touch by studying the proteins and minerals in sea shells. How cool is that!

But we weren’t the first ones to figure out how to use sea shells for our benefit. The Shell Museum includes an exhibit on the Calusa Indians, the original inhabitants of this region, and how they used sea shells as tools, cooking and for decoration. And, of course, they ate the marine life in live shells.

Calusa Indian exhibit at shell museum on Sanibel Island

Tips for Finding Sea Shells on Sanibel Island

We were told Bowman’s Beach was the best beach for shelling on Sanibel. And there were lots of great shells there. However, we found a greater variety and fewer people at the Lighthouse Beach on the south end of the island.

  • The best shelling is after a storm or at low tide.
  • Take a small bucket, mesh bag or some sort of container to carry your shells home.
  • Wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. Going barefoot on crunchy shells is not the best idea.
  • Do not pick up sand dollars, sea urchins or sea stars, commonly known as starfish. They are protected by federal law.
  • Do not buy nautilus shells. They are overfished simply to be sold as souvenirs.

But here’s the most important tip for finding sea shells on Sanibel or anywhere in the world.

Eliminate plastic in your life where possible. It’s killing the living shells in the ocean.

The museum also leads walks on the beach to search for shells each day at 9 a.m. There’s a fee and advance reservations are required.  (239-395-2233)

Where to Eat on Sanibel Island

Sanibel and Captiva Islands have dozens of fabulous restaurants to choose from. We had the most fabulous Mexican food at 400 Rabbits. We really enjoyed lunch on the patio of Doc Ford’s on Captiva and the pizza from Dante’s Inferno. And you can’t beat the breakfast at the Lighthouse Cafe. We highly recommend them all.

However, if you only have one meal on Sanibel, we recommend The Timbers Restaurant and Fish Market on Tarpon Bay Road. First, we had a really good meal and drinks and found it to be more reasonably priced than many other restaurants.

But here’s why we really recommend The Timbers: They provide all of the seafood for the live critters at the National Shell Museum.

Sea shells cover a mailbox on Sanibel island