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Seashells

A Guide to Shelling on the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks’ beaches offer more than just fun in the sun and crashing waves; they offer treasures for those that are willing to hunt! Shelling on the Outer Banks delivers fun for the whole family but can also act as a peaceful way to enjoy some time to yourself. Many members of the staff here at Twiddy & Company are avid seashell hunters and we wanted to share our knowledge, tips and finds with you!

OBX Shelling

 

Is this a Conch or a Whelk Shell?

Whelk Shell

If you guessed Whelk, then you are right! Whelks are commonly mistaken for conch shells because of their similarities to the conch shells found on Florida beaches including conical shapes and wide openings. Whelks are much more usual to find on the beaches of the Outer Banks than conchs. The three most common types of whelks are the lightning whelk, knobbed whelk and channeled whelk. Once you finish this short shell education, you will be an expert amongst your friends and family while on vacation!

Lightning Whelk

  • Largest of the three – 14 inches or longer
  • Left-sided opening
  • Typically gray, tan or light yellow with uneven streaks of purple and brown

Lightning Whelk


Knobbed Whelk

  • 8-12 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Typically has streaks of purple and an interior color ranging from creamy yellow to orange

Knobbed Whelk


Channeled Whelk

  • 4-16 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Deep channeled spirals instead of spiny spirals

Channeled Whelk

While Whelks are the biggest shells you are likely to find, there are many other smaller shells you can hunt for while on the Outer Banks! The more shells you discover, the more you will realize that no two shells look the same: the coloring, the weathering, the size, etc. That means every shell you find will be unique and can be a wonderful keepsake from your vacation.

 

Let’s continue our shell education with some smaller shells and a few rare ones!

 

Scotch Bonnet

  • 1.5-4 inches long with 20 spiral grooves
  • Right-sided opening
  • The North Carolina state shell
  • Very rare!

scotch bonnet shelling


Banded Tulip

  • 2-4 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Gray with spiraling brown bands

banded tulip shelling


Coquina Clams

  • 1 inch long or smaller
  • Comes in a variety of colors including purple, pink, yellow and orange
  • Very common

Coquina clams shelling


Calico Scallops

  • 1-2 inches long
  • Comes in a variety of colors including black, white, gray, yellow, orange, pink and purple
  • Very common

Calico Scallop


Sand Dollars

  • 1-4 inches in diameter
  • White and tan; if brown then it is still alive
  • Very fragile and rare

Sand Dollar

Before we dive into our shelling tips and advice, let’s finish this shell education with a few fun ones: sea stars, fulgurite and sea glass.

 

Sea Star

  • Most commonly known as a starfish (but it’s not a fish!)
  • Come in many different sizes
  • If you find one, you’ll likely find more close by!
  • Leave out to dry because they can have strong odor

Sea Star


Fulgurite

  • Formed when lightning strikes sand; it causes the mineral to melt and then harden
  • Small pieces are common but large pieces are very rare
  • Every piece is unique

Fulgurite

Sea Glass

  • The most popular find among beachcombers
  • Weathered down from rolling along the ocean floor and the salt water
  • Most common colors include green, blue, brown and white

Sea Glass

If you can find all of these while on your vacation, then you are an all-star beachcomber!

Now that you know what to look for, we will offer our tips and tricks on seashell hunting. What’s the best time of the day? Do the tides affect my treasure hunt? Where on the Outer Banks beaches would I find a whelk? We’ve got you covered!

When is the best time to go shelling?

The best time of the day to comb the beaches is at sunrise because you will beat everyone else out there and the ocean has shifted the shell beds all night. Another thing to consider is the tide; low tide provides the widest beach and reveals the shell deposits that were hidden during high tide. Check the tide chart to know when these times are each day. Time of the year can also play a factor in shell hunting. Typically, fall and winter are the best times to find the rare shells due to more storm activity and less people.

Outer Banks Sunrise

 

Where is the best place to hunt for shells?

The incredible coastline of the Outer Banks spans roughly 200 miles from Corolla to Ocracoke providing you with plenty of places to go shelling. When searching on the beach, focus on looking under seaweed clumps, in tidal pools and right by the water. Remember that many just look on the surface; sometimes you need to dig down a little to find the good stuff! All of the shells mentioned above can be found on any of the OBX beaches, but you may have better luck at finding certain ones with our advice.

Outer Banks Beach shelling

 

4×4 Beaches of Carova

Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sand Dollars

4 wheel drive allows you to find shell beds on the go!

Wide and uncrowded beaches

 

Corolla and Duck

Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sea Stars

While Whelks may be common, try finding one that is perfectly intact – rare!

 

Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head

Whelks, Coquina Clams, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Fulgurite, Sea Stars

There is even a beach named after the Coquina Clams in South Nags Head called Coquina Beach!

 

Ocracoke

Scotch Bonnets, Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sea Stars, Sand Dollars

Take a day trip down to Ocracoke to find a Scotch Bonnet!

 

How should I hunt for these shells?

When hunting for shells, it’s best to bring a grocery or mesh bag along to hold them. You will run out of pocket space quickly! If you have another bag handy, bring it along to collect trash off the beach. You never know…you may just get rewarded by finding a Scotch Bonnet if doing so! Please remember to not disturb any living sea life and fill in any holes that you dug during the search.

Shelling

 

Good luck on your OBX shelling treasure hunt!

Send us your finds to photos@twiddy.com and we will feature them on our social media accounts!

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