In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine. When the storms roll through, the shellers come out.
In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
When the storms roll through, the shellers come out. After high tides and strong winds, at dawn, and on remote islands along the edge of the state, North Carolina beaches are often littered with treasures from the sea. For some, beachcombing means a relaxing walk on the shore with the added perk of lovely marine souvenirs. For others, it’s a thrilling expedition, and excitement is heightened by the anticipation of a good find. With a little luck and strategy, even novice beachcombers on our coast can discover whelks, cockles, pen shells, olives, shark teeth, sand dollars, and, yes, our state shell: the Scotch bonnet.
“You almost have to be a treasure hunter of sorts,” says Darryl Marsh, captain of Swansboro’s Marsh Cruises, who guides eager scavengers to some of the state’s most scenic and abundant shelling destinations. “You go out there and say, ‘What unique thing am I going to find today?’”
We caught up with Marsh and two other shelling experts — Vicky Wall, secretary of the North Carolina Shell Club, and Lynn Anderson, collections manager for the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort — to dig up tips and tricks for discovering the loveliest shells our state has to offer. Before you hit the sand, let the experts lead the way.
Captain of Swansboro’s Marsh Cruises
Secretary of the North Carolina Shell Club
Collections Manager for the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort
Darryl Marsh: It was always a love of my mom’s. She’d always enjoyed finding shells and treasures on the beach. I started as a scenic tour operator with a small boat, taking people on sunset cruises and scenic rides. Then we started taking folks over to the islands and sandbars. The business kind of evolved to getting folks out to unique locations that have better shells and can only be reached by boat. We’ll run you out and hit a couple of good shelling spots if you want to find some cool treasures. I love that you just never know what you’re going to find.
Vicky Wall: I started collecting shells when I was about 7 years old. I used to do some shelling by diving offshore on various trips off North Carolina’s coast. But now, for me, shelling is during low tide on the Outer Banks or just walking the beaches. I love traveling and the idea that you never know what you’re going to find. It’s like a treasure hunt. It’s relaxing being outside, and then it’s very exciting when you find something that’s unexpected.
Lynn Anderson: I grew up in Greensboro, and every summer my family would go to the beach. My dad liked to shell and find things. He was primarily looking for shark teeth, but he helped me collect shells, too. I started at about 10 years old. I love the adventure of going out and looking. I love to walk — my main form of exercise is walking on the beach. I do zigzags pretty much every weekend. I have a couple of shelling friends, so we like to walk together and shell. My husband has even started shelling with me.
Darryl Marsh: A place like Cape Point [the easternmost beach on Hatteras Island] is so dynamic in the way that it’s shaped because it has several different locations that can hold shells. Geography helps for a place like that. Weather’s always critical, too, because when there are storms, they generally churn up the ocean. After the ocean’s churned up, you can find things that have washed up — those better finds and treasures.
Vicky Wall: The best luck I’ve had is in the fall. The water’s still warm, but there are fewer people. And then any time after a storm, fewer people are out on the beaches. If you could get there after a good nor’easter, that’s when I have found some very good shells.
Lynn Anderson: After a storm and after a high tide. Churning waters often will bring lots of wind and water. Of course, we have lots of wind on our coast, so I think that’s what makes the shelling so good.
Darryl Marsh: I’m partial to Bear Island because I’m here in Swansboro. Cape Lookout National Seashore, too — it’s so dynamic up there, and at all points, you’re looking at this huge, beautiful lighthouse. And the crystal-clear water makes it one of my favorite locations to find the big whelks. We fill up buckets with those.
Vicky Wall: Topsail Island, Emerald Isle, Cape Lookout, Portsmouth Island, and Ocracoke — those are my favorite places. You can be out there and be the only person within eyesight. That’s what’s so cool.
Lynn Anderson: I think my favorite of all is Portsmouth Island, which is only accessible by a special ferry that you take from Ocracoke. I usually go every March with the North Carolina Shell Club. You can visit the village, but nobody lives there now, so it’s operated by the park service. You usually find lots and lots of shells, including the Scotch bonnet, baby ears, whelks, and some of the big shells — I’ve even seen a horse conch there. Portsmouth gets a lot of shells that you don’t see on the mainland beaches.
Vicky Wall: It’s just experience. When I started out, I had a little nature guide, and I read it cover to cover. You learn the shapes of the shells, and then it’s just walking with your head down. After a while you start seeing the shapes, and it gets easier.
Lynn Anderson: You get better at it. You look for certain colors and shapes. When you’re looking for little shells, you have to get down low sometimes.
Darryl Marsh: I would say the Scotch bonnet is the most highly sought-after shell, hands down. Once, I was with a friend, and we were walking down the beach, probably about a 40- to 50-foot-long stretch. We found five Scotch bonnets, all intact, all in perfect shape. Just to find one of them is certainly exciting, but to find five in such a short area was very, very cool.
Vicky Wall: The Scotch bonnet, which is our state shell, and the horse conch. One of my best days was on Topsail Island in March of 1993. That was the “Storm of the Century,” which was all up and down the coast with big winds. I got to the beach a week after the storm and there were still so many shells thrown onto the beach from the waves that I had never found before on a regular day. I found lots of sand dollars, tulip snails, apple murexes that I had never found before, turban snails, all kinds of starfish, lots of scallops, and lots of oysters. I would say I found maybe 50 different species, whereas on a regular “good” day, it might be four.
Lynn Anderson: My favorite thing of all are miniatures: I really like miniature shells, and my two favorites are the wentletrap and the oyster drill. About two years ago, we went to Portsmouth Island with the North Carolina Shell Club. It was a nice hike, and we found some beautiful shells — all different kinds. I found a lot of whelks and Scotch bonnets. Then, I had a picnic lunch with my friends on the beach.
Darryl Marsh: I have a nice wooden bowl full of sand dollars that acts as a centerpiece [in my home]. A lot of people make ornaments out of them. I also have a couple of pieces of neat driftwood; some people put driftwood out in their gardens or flower beds.
Vicky Wall: I catalog my shells, identify them, and then I participate in shell shows.
Lynn Anderson: I put the tiny shells inside necklaces — I think they’re called “floating lockets.” I also collect broken whelks and make them into trees, and I do sell some of those. And then others I just collect because it’s fun.
Vicky Wall: First, check out the North Carolina Shell Club website. It has a lot of information about different places to shell and the identification of shells. Then, go on Amazon or to a bookstore and buy a good shell identification book. There are a lot of online resources that help to identify shells, too. After that, head to the beach!
Lynn Anderson: It’s helpful to have a good book. You could join the North Carolina Shell Club. The other thing you could do is go to the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. And then I’d say start small! Start close to home if you live in eastern North Carolina — the Outer Banks are great.
Darryl Marsh: Shell clubs are good places to start seeing where people are going, the type of stuff that they’re finding, and what shells are unique to North Carolina. Social media can really help you find out where the better places to go are. Once you start learning about some of the different types of shells, like the Scotch bonnet, and you find out how beautiful and fragile and rare they are — and how exciting it is to find one — that will really get you going.