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Sanibel Island is renowned for its great shelling. It is considered to be in the top 3 shell collecting beaches in the world. The phrase "Sanibel Stoop" refers to the many people you will see all year long bent over collecting shells from the beach. It is the iconic activity on Sanibel and what draws vacationers from all over the world.

Unlike fishing where you might come home empty-handed, a shelling expedition is certain to yield some treasures. But first, the treasure hunter needs to be prepared to make the most of the shelling experience and protect the shells found and gathered. The most important thing to keep in mind is the golden rule of shell collecting: If it's alive, leave it! Living shells are not allowed in your shell collection.

The State of Florida has outlawed the collecting of live shells on the island. "Live shell" is defined as any specimen containing an inhabitant, whether or not the mollusk seems alive. The law also protects sand dollars, starfish, and sea urchins. All shelling is prohibited in J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

Where Are the Best Place to Collect Shells on Sanibel Island?

It’s one of the most common questions we get on Sanibel Island…people come from all over the world to collect the millions of shells that wash up on our 14 miles of Gulf shores, but they want to know where they can find the most and best shells? 

Did we mention that it’s FOURTEEN MILES LONG? And it’s all public property, though there are only five public parking lots to access the Gulf side.  There are also several “deed-restricted” spaces that would require a permit from the City, plus many public walking paths between properties. 

There’s no perfect answer as to where’s best to shell.  It sometimes depends on the weather.  In the summer, a strong storm can produce enough tidal surges to push large amounts onto various locations of the beach, almost creating new reefs on the coast.  Shelling is best one hour before and one hour after low tide.  Our Gulf-side condos are located through most of the coast, from near Lighthouse Beach to West Gulf Drive, some of which is less frequented than at the public parking areas, so you can find some quieter areas to practice “The Sanibel Stoop.”  

Bowman’s Beach is considered to be the most secluded beach on Sanibel, as there are no hotels and only one condo complex in the vicinity.  Also, there are no residences to the West, separated by Clam Bayou, so there’s an opportunity to find an abundance of shells.  Bowman’s Beach Road is located near mile marker 5 on Sanibel-Captiva Road (Look for the fire station on the left.).  This is also a public parking area ($5.00 per hour) with nature trails, picnic tables and playground, and a fitness trail.   

Please remember, you can take all the “dead” shells you can carry, but anything with the mussel is “live” and is illegal to collect and not advisable, as they decompose with a terrible stench that can ruin luggage and clothing. 

If all else fails, Sanibel Holiday has a collection of shells in our lobby, including “starter shells” at the Front Desk for the little ones to enjoy.  And be sure to let us know if you happen to find the ever-elusive perfect Junonia!

Do's and Don'ts for Collecting Shells on Sanibel Island

Aside from avoiding collecting live shells, it is best for the Island ecology not to try to remove buckets of shells from the beaches. It is also best for you. Not only are the shells an example of your cup runneth over when you arrive home with lots of shells and nowhere to keep them, but shell collections are also best viewed as "less is more".

There are few places in the world where you can bring home such beauty from vacation, and all for free! So with a cautionary and conservation philosophy in mind, here are the steps for collecting and preserving shells: Be Prepared.

Bring a bucket, a net bag and a scoop, and plenty of sun lotion as well as a hat if it is a hot, sunny day (as most days are on Sanibel!). You may find that these necessities are already stocked in your vacation rental. Look before you buy is always a good policy in getting to know your accommodation and what comes "included".

You may collect sand dollars but first, check to make sure that the sand dollar is not alive - turn it over - there are little centipede feet up and down the backside -gently touch them with your finger to see if they move and it's alive. If alive gently place them back into the water and if they do not move, then you have just found one of the island's treasures!

Shell at low tide preferably and after a storm to find the maximum number of shells and maximum variety. There is good shelling on most beaches on Sanibel, but not all. Bowman's Beach, on Sanibel's far west end, is considered one of the best shelling beaches on the Island.

Soak shells in a 50/50 solution of water and bleach for a few hours or overnight. If any barnacles or other matter is left remove them with a pick or toothbrush. To make shells shine wipe with mineral oil or baby oil.

To bleach a sand dollar white it is important to soak it in freshwater first. Water will be a brownish color, so you will need to change water frequently until fairly clear or just continually flush with water until the water stays fairly clear. Soak it in a 50/50 solution of bleach and water for 5-10 minutes. Do not soak too long in bleach solution as the sand dollar may crumble. Rinse thoroughly, let dry preferably in the sun to bleach further.

So, what do you do with your treasures when you get home? The options are endless. You can create decorations of them, give them as gifts, use them as paperweights.

Or, simply hold one in your hand and dream a little dream of your vacation on Sanibel.