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Times of the Islands Magazine

Simplicity of Shelling: Answers to FAQs About our Region’s Favorite Hobby

People come from all over the world to search for, relish and appreciate some 300 varieties of shells right here on the beaches of Southwest Florida.

During the past two decades, I have been fortunate to be a shelling nature guide, departing from Captiva Island and traveling to barrier islands such as North Captiva and Cayo Costa—and sandbars in between. From my involvement with shellers young and old, experienced or novice, I often get asked the following questions related to shelling:

When is the best time to shell?

Anytime you can go to the beach is a good day to shell! I guess I am not as particular as some people. The time when it could possibly be better is after strong winds, which can happen in the winter months when “cold fronts” pass through.

Where do you find big shells?

At the shell shop! People always want BIG shells. The truth is that a lot of big shells don’t just roll up on the beach—unless after strong winds or a tropical system. One of the best (and biggest) lightning whelk shells I have seen was actually found by my wife. We were on Cayo Costa shortly after tropical storm Gordon in 1994. She noticed a small piece of shell and started digging around it. After a few minutes of digging, she unearthed a beautiful lightning whelk.

Is it better at low tide or high tide?

I get this question a lot and I know that many people like to shell at low tide. However, low tide is not the “be all and end all” for shelling. Some of the best shells I have found have been at high tide after storms. Low tide can be very good, but it also depends a lot on the wind as to how far up the high-tide water is, or how low the low-tide water is.

I've seen great shelling at super-high tides, medium tides and super moon tides. The force of nature that dictates shelling the most is the wind. High tide or low tide, just get out there and shell. You never know what the sea will offer and that is the beauty of shelling.

When is your favorite time of year to shell?

May, June, July, August and September. Why? The water is warm, lighter clothing may be worn and we generally have clearer water to see in it for shells. Did I mention that the water is warmer?

What is your most favorite shell ever found?

That would have to be an Atlantic carrier shell. This shell reminds me of Carol Sellers—a sheller who walked many miles and observed many shells. Like the carrier shell, Carol Sellers enjoyed all the shells around her. She lived on Cayo Costa—as a permanent resident—from 1974 to 2007.

The answers to shelling are like the tide, and are ever-changing—like the shells that roll to the beach. I often think of this quote from another sheller who enjoyed the solitude and shells on the beach of Captiva:

“The waves echo behind me. Patience—Faith—Openness, is what the sea has to teach. Simplicity—Solitude—Intermittency … But there are other beaches to explore. There are more shells to find. This is only a beginning.” —Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955

Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.