Gone are the days of lazily lounging in the summer sun and beating the heat by floating the day away in the beautiful warm water off Pensacola Beach. We've traded in our flip-flops, swimsuits and floats for water shoes, scoop nets and mesh bags, and we’re out walking the beach, on a determined mission for finding the best of the best seashells.
For the serious shell enthusiasts to the casual beachcomber, winter shelling along Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Islands National Seashore is a time that is looked forward to all year with excited anticipation. On any given morning, after the night's high tide has come and gone, the Gulf has left a shoreline littered with gifts for the shell-seekers.
Types of Shells
Shells that can be found along our coast include Florida Fighting Conchs, Scotch Bonnets, Sun Dials, Sand Dollars, Florida Cones, Nutmegs, Olives, Lions Paws, Tulips, and a variety of Murex. Even the prized but rare Junonia has been found!
Some days it might be a line of shells that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see, while other days it's a random "honey-hole" of shells in sporadic patches. There's no way of telling what exact part of Pensacola Beach the shells will be on a daily basis. That’s a part of the fun: never knowing exactly where they’ll be making the exploration more intense and the joy of finding a rare, prized shell that much more memorable!
However, there are a few tips to increase your chances of going home with a bucket of souvenirs from the sea!
When to Go - Planning is everything
The early sheller gets the shells. The earlier the better! Shelling around here is serious business, y’all! If you wait too late in the morning, chances are you're going to be picking through a line of leftovers of broken shell bits.
About two hours before low tide is the best time to go as the listed time on tide reports is the “peak”, the lowest or highest level of tide. Going out 2 hours before the peak low tide time ensures that you’ll be there when the high tide is receding, exposing all the shells left behind. I prefer to use local surf reports from websites such as MagicSeaweed.com or Surfline.com to find the tide times but they can be found in a variety of different places if you do a Google search for Pensacola Beach tide charts.
Don't be discouraged if you don't find shells as soon as you walk onto the beach. Rarely does anyone roll out of their car and find a jackpot of shells waiting for them. Carry a bottle of water, a bag for your treasures, and a bag for collecting trash along the way and set out for a long walk. Walk along the high tide line and down at the water’s edge. I usually zig-zag, back and forth, up and down the shore. Walk like you have all the time in the world. Just keep walking, you'll be glad you did when you stumble upon a pile full of treasures to have all to yourself and you’ll feel good knowing you also helped to keep the beaches clean!
One of my favorite ways to winter shell is by "scooping". This method will give you a leg up on the competition if you're not the only one out, and it also can be used at any time of the day. Scooping means you walk into the water at ankle to shin deep and use a tool to “scoop” up the shells that get caught at the lip of the water's edge.
Local bait and tackle shops carry a tool called sand flea rakes, however these can be cumbersome to carry on a long beach walk. I prefer to use a simple scoop net, a net on the end of a short wooden rod. It is lightweight, easy to carry, can be found at any local Publix or souvenir shop. The rewards can be worth getting a little wet!
Tips and Tricks
While shelling is a fun and relaxing hobby, we also need to shell responsibly. That means being a good steward of the ocean and not taking any shells that have live residents in them. Look carefully for a little critter in each of your finds and if there’s one inside, do the little guy a solid, and return him into the water.
Now armed with a few tips for successful winter shelling, you’re ready to shell like a local! Have fun, happy hunting, and I’ll “sea” you out there!