Shell collecting on Sandbridge Beach is among the most pleasant pastimes on vacation. Not only is it relaxing, but also rewarding when you find that special treasure. With a little bit of luck (and a helping of science), you can increase your chances of finding the best seashells.
Optimal Times to Find Seashells
On any day, shelling is best at low tide. Sandbridge Beach has a relatively mild tidal range, with water rising between three and six feet, depending on the lunar cycle. The tide cycles twice a day, with six hours separating low tide and high tide.
Want to boost your shell-finding mojo? Look for them during low tide when there is a full or new moon lunar phase. Full moons cause higher tides and stronger currents, which can dislodge large shells, and more shells, from the seabed and wash them ashore. If there will be a full or new moon during your vacation, plan your shell-collecting trip near low tide on those days.
Though you won’t be able to plan for it, after a storm is also a great time to go shell hunting. Storms can cause strong waves and currents that wash greater quantities of shells onto the beach. After a storm is a wonderful time to walk the beach and handpick the large shells, sand dollars, and more that are easily churned up.
Types of Shells
Sandbridge Beach combers will find a variety of whelks, including knobbed whelks, channeled whelks, and lightning whelks. Telling one whelk species from another is fairly easy: In lightning whelks, the aperture or opening is on the left (think “L” for “lightning”). Knobbed whelks have knobby protrusions on the top, just as their name suggests. Channeled whelks have a dainty appearance, almost like the spiral of a cinnamon roll.
The rare Scotch Bonnet is the most-prized find on any East Coast beach. This small shell looks like a cone with a fat middle. Because it’s only about 2″ long, you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out as you walk the beach. If you find one, it’s worth celebrating.
Olive shells are somewhat rare, though a dedicated comber has a good chance of finding at least one. Olive shells are small, about 1″ to 2″ in length, and look like rolled tubes. If you find one, look closely at the intricate patterns.
Many other types of shells are common, but no less fun to find. Look for large, smooth clam shells, which locals call “quahogs,” and use them as soap dishes or bedside jewelry caches. Jingle shells are small, shiny, circular shells that reflect the sun like mother-of-pearl. Moonsnail shells are about the size of a quarter and look like a traditional snail shell. Oyster drills appear to be tiny conch shells with fancy ribs and patterns. You may also find razor clam shells, scallops, slipper shells, sundials, surf clams, tulip shells, angle and turkey wings, wentletraps, wormsnail shells, and pen shells.
Be Sure They’re Vacant
It’s very important to be sure any shells you collect are vacant. Seashells are home to marine snails, clams, mollusks, crabs, and more. If you pick up a shell and see that there’s something living in it, gently place it back in the water. The Sandbridge Beach ecosystem is fragile, and seashell-dwelling critters are an important part keeping it healthy.
You may find sand dollars, sea urchins, or starfish washed up on the beaches. Remember — it is illegal to collect them if they’re alive. How can you tell? Gently pick them up, turn them over, and look for moving cilia (tiny hairs).
For whelk shells or other shells that may contain mollusks, look inside the opening or gently place your finger in the opening to see if it’s occupied.
Where to Look on Sandbridge Beach
The beach at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is never crowded, so your chances of being the first to find sea goodies is higher. False Cape State Park is another excellent place to have a stretch of sand to yourself. However, the northern ends of Sandbridge Beach have more shallow water, which means more shells.
Be sure to check carefully around any fallen trees that have washed up on the beach. Heavy objects can cause indentations where shells are trapped as they wash in on an incoming tide. Wherever you look, take a small sand shovel and carefully dig anywhere you see shells collecting.
Shell hunting on Sandbridge Beach is one of the best ways to spend a morning or afternoon. To increase your chances of taking home a few sea treasures, have patience, check the weather and tides, and take in the beauty of nature.