The beaches of North Carolina's coast attract shell hunters from around the country, and it is easy to see why. In 2008, the Ocracoke Island stretch of the North Carolina shoreline was recognized as the second best shelling beach in the country by Coastal Living magazine. Although Ocracoke Island was given this recognition, no matter where you stroll along the sand in North Carolina, there is a good chance you might find a special treasure to take home. Collectors and beach-goers have returned home from a North Carolina beach vacation with armfuls of whelks, helmet conchs, scallops, olive shells, moon snails and a myriad of other shells that find their way to the shoreline. A gorgeous treasure all in itself, the seashells along the coast are a perfect memento of any vacation, and a souvenir you will treasure long after your vacation is over.

Throughout history, seashells have been valued and treasured throughout the ages. Perhaps this is why this common animal shell is still loved today by collectors around the world.

What exactly is a seashell? A seashell is the common name of the hard protective exoskeleton of a marine mollusk. Not all mollusks require shells for protection, like slugs, and not all mollusks with a shell live in the ocean, like a land snail. The little shell treasures that beachcombers find are the hard exoskeletons that remain after the marine organism has died. Occasionally, these shells are recycled, as hermit crabs are attracted to in-tact shells that they will commandeer and use as their home until they outgrow it and have to search for a larger shell.

Seashells have always played a part in human history, and the earliest pieces of art show that seashells have always had a role of beauty and curiosity. Ancient Greek sculptures and paintings often incorporate nautilus shells, and a scallop shell is prominently featured in a particularly famous work, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

But, shells have also had a more practical role in certain cultures. Seashells have been used as a medium of exchange in a myriad of places throughout the globe, including many Indian and Pacific Ocean Islands, North America, Africa and the Caribbean.

The most common species of shells to be used as currency have been Cypraea moneta, the "money cowry," and certain tusk shells or Dentalium, such as those used in Northwestern North America for many centuries. Some tribes of the indigenous peoples of the Americas used shells for both wampum, or money, and hair pipes.

In fact, the Dutch East India Company, a major force in the colonization of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, amassed a large portion of its vast fortune via trading shell money in exchange for commodities such as spices, exotic animals and gemstones that were considered valuable in Europe at the time.

Seashells have also been used as tools, due to their versatility and variety of shapes. Giant clams have been used as bowls, and when large enough, even as bathtubs and baptismal fonts. Many different species of bivalves have been used as scrapers, blades, clasps, and other such tools, due to their shape. While you may not use your shells as tools or for bartering, shells still hold a place in our culture as a decorative item, a craft material, or a beautiful souvenir.

Shell Collecting

Collecting and studying shells and even their makers, the mollusks, is one of the oldest natural history hobbies of humans, dating back to the Romans and well before.

In fact, a shell collection was preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. Aristotle, and then Pliny the Elder, were among the first naturalists to write about shells. Aristotle could even be considered the father of shell collecting, as he was the first to coin the name "Mollusca," meaning "soft-bodied."

International studies have suggested that shell collecting is the second most popular collecting hobby, after postage stamps. While it has hard to prove that this is true, the timeless appeal of shells probably owes as much to the infinite variety of molluscan shape, color and pattern as it does to their actual beauty.

There are numerous popular books and field guides on the subject of shell collecting. Although there are a number of books about land and freshwater mollusks, the majority of popular books emphasizes the shells of marine mollusks, which can be found along the North Carolina coastline.

Both the science of studying mollusk shells and the hobby of collecting and classifying them are known as conchology. Like many natural sciences, the line between professionals and amateur enthusiasts is often blurred, as many amateurs have contributed to, and continue to contribute to, conchology.

Many shell collectors also belong to "shell clubs" where they can meet others who share their interests, both amateurs and professionals. While regional coastal areas may have their own clubs, many of these can be found online, where shell hunters can send in and share photos of their finds, or exchange their shells via snail mail.

Some shell collectors find their own material and keep careful records, or buy only "specimen shells," which means shells which have full collecting data: information including how, when, where, in what habitat, and by whom, the shells were collected. On the other hand, some collectors buy the more widely available commercially-imported exotic shells, the kind that are found in everyday souvenir stores along the beach, and the majority of which are common and have very little data accompanying the shell, or none at all.

To museum scientists, having full collecting data on a specimen is far more important than having the shell correctly identified. Some owners of shell collections hope to be able to donate their collection to a major natural history or zoology museum at some point, however, shells with little or no collecting data are usually of no value to science, and are not likely be accepted by a major museum.

But scientists and museums aren't the only folks who are primarily interested in seashells. Many artists, accessory shops and specialty furniture stores are on the hunt for large amounts, or even just a few special shells, to intertwine with their craft projects.

Some collectors will even post on their website if they are searching for a particular type of shell that is lacking from their collection, and wholesalers often shop for shells in bulk to sell in their stores or online.

Of course, one of the most rewarding reasons to collect seashells is just for fun: whether it is for a personal craft project or just as a reminder of the vacation or day that the shell was found, the majority of amateur collectors hunt seashells for the sheer pleasure and pride of finding that one-of-a-kind shell they can treasure from their own home after their vacation is over.

How Seashells are Made

The seashell of a mollusk itself is generally made of a calcium carbonate, which is secreted by the outer surface of the mantle of the shell as the creature ages, creating "layers" of shell. The composition can be thickened, enlarged and repaired, but does not play a part in the metabolism of the animal. When the mollusk eventually dies, the shell is usually the only part that remains intact.

The shell of a mollusk grows periodically, not continuously, like a small child. Because the upper surface of the shell is formed by tissue at the mantle edge while inner layers are secreted by all parts of the mantle surface, growth takes place in two directions. The first is parallel to the edge, indicating its growth in size, and the second is at right angles of the surface, indicating its growth in thickness. This varying growth process ensures that no two species are ever exactly the same. A shell formation can produce new structural elements, like folds or tubercles, which are easy to spot on larger whelks and conchs. As growth continues, these irregularities can produce what is known as an ornament or sculpture on the upper surface of the shell.

Collectors have always been amazed by the intricate design and varying color patterns of shells. The color and design of the shell is mainly dependent on the diet of the animal. In warmer waters where varieties of food sources are abundant, shell seekers will find thousands of species in all shapes, sizes and colors. In colder waters where food sources are typically the same, seekers will find mostly darker shells in hues of white, gray, and beige, lacking any type of vibrant color.

The food consumed by the mollusk causes pigments to be produced within the mantle of the mollusk, and these pigments are deposited in the layers lying directly beneath the periostracum, or surface of the shell. As with shell growth process, which can produce a variety of different shells in all shapes and sizes, the color pattern may also be the result of periodic activity. If the pigment secretion is continuous, then spiral or radial lines or bands will be laid down. However, if pigment secretion is periodic, perhaps by lack of food or simply a varying diet or feeding habit, then spots or flecks will appear on the shell. If the whole mantle is secreting pigment at the same rate, the shell will have uniform color, but if the process is interrupted, then axial or concentric lines appear. If the pigment is secreted in certain zones of the shell, then wavy bands or angular markings occur.

Depending on the species, the resulting shell itself is used for a variety of functions. Most marine mollusks use the shell for protection from predators and their hostile environment, as many mollusks can withdraw completely or at least partially into the shell. Terrestrial mollusks use the shell to prevent water loss that can lead to desiccation. Some mollusks use the shell as a tool to move or open objects, and others use the shell for locomotion and buoyancy whether it is crawling, swimming or floating.

The remarkable end result is an infinite number of shells that may be similar, but are never quite the same. As strange as it sounds, much of the mollusk's life can be determined simply by examining the shell.

The Best Methods of Collecting Seashells

While finding the perfect shell can sometimes be a simple stroke of luck of being at the right place at the right time, there are a few tricks of the trade that avid beachcombers use to enhance their chances of running into a great find.

Before you get started, check with the local Park Service or Visitors' Bureau to see if there are any local restrictions to collecting seashells in your area. Some North Carolina beaches, like the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, only allow you to take one bucket of shells at a time, or have other limitations or restrictions, like not removing any love shells from the seashore.

As for making sure the odds of finding a good shell remain in your favor, there is an old cliche that says "the early bird gets the worm," and this is certainly true in shell hunting. The best time to find shells on a popular beach is as early as possible, preferably around daybreak, when the fresh finds that have washed onto the beach are still undiscovered.

Combing the beach right after a tide, preferably a low tide, can also yield fruitful results as you will be among the first to see what the ocean has washed up. A high tide pushes shells up to the top of the tide line, while a low tide will often expose shells that are right near the ocean wash. Some collectors even bring small nets to their favorite spots, so they can walk along the shoreline, dip their nets, and see what shells are lying right where the waves are breaking.

Of course, the best time to find shells is right after a major storm, like a Nor'easter, tropical storm or hurricane. Wait several days for the wind and waves to calm down, and then get ready for piles of shells to wash up on the beach. Even without a storm, you still might spot shell piles washed up along the shoreline. If you do not spot anything big or worthy of keeping in these piles, do not be deterred. Sometimes, some of the best smaller shells like Augers, Periwinkles, Oyster Drills and butter yellow Margarine Shells are buried in big piles of shells.

Patches of seaweed can also be a good hiding place for shells, as they can get tangled in these patches and not be damaged by rough ocean waves. Also, there is a good chance that other beachcombers have not thought to look under these patches of seaweed washed up on the beach to see if there is a good shell buried underneath them. Turn piles of seaweed over or shake them out gently, and you just might be rewarded with a good shell find.

Be sure to be extremely careful when handling your shells. Many seashells are quite delicate and some can be still alive. Starfish and sand dollars, while not technically shells, are two examples of delicate finds. Deceased sand dollars are white in color, and are extremely easy to break, while starfish, when deceased, are rigid and just as delicate. For special shells, bring a separate Ziploc bag lined with tissue paper, and carry it separately from the rest of your less fragile finds.

What You Will Find

So what, specifically, can one expect to find when beachcombing along a North Carolina beach? The treasures can change with the tide, but there are a few seashells for which the North Carolina coast is most well-known.

Scotch Bonnet
The North Carolina state shell is surprisingly somewhat uncommon, but this gives the Scotch Bonnet its allure to serious collectors and everyday vacationers alike. The egg-shaped, conical Scotch Bonnet is 1" to 3 1/4" long and is white with 3 or more spirals of reddish brown or reddish yellow spots. Of course, patches of black tar-infused sand and months of rolling around in the ocean can wear a Scotch Bonnet, or any shell, and change its color dramatically to all white or gray. The outer lip of the shell is thickened and has tiny teeth. Though known to frequent North Carolina waters, these shells can be found all the way south to Texas and Brazil. Scotch Bonnets are best found in sand or very shallow ocean water, and large numbers of Scotch Bonnets can wash up after a storm, and long periods of strong winds blowing towards shore.

Often mistaken for conchs because of their similar intricate and beautiful spirals, with a large lip and opening, there are three types of whelks that call North Carolina home. The Lightning Whelk and Knobbed Whelk are very similar and vary in one slight, but significant way. The whorl of the lightning whelk, the large opening in the shell, is on the left side of the shell, while the whorl of the knobbed whelk is on the right side.

There are other differences between these two shells as well. For instance, the Knobbed Whelk is pale grayish-brown and only between 4 and 9" long, while a Lightning Whelk, typically a yellow or grayish-white color, can be up to 16" long.

The third whelk is the Channel Whelk. While the Lightning Whelk and Knobbed Whelk have cords with small rounded or pointy knobs along the spiral of the shell, the Channel Whelk has a broad body whorl with smooth conical curves. The Channel Whelk is 3 1/2" to 7 1/2" long and is gray or yellowish white. All of these whelks can be found in abundance after storms and can be found along the beach or buried in sand flats that are exposed by low tides. Definitely keepers, whelks are large, ornate shells that are worthy of any coffee table or keepsake cabinet display.

Queen Helmet Conch
Another mantel-worthy shell that occasionally makes an appearance on a North Carolina beach is the Queen Helmet Conch. While its relative the King Helmet Conch is more commonly found in Caribbean waters, the Queen Helmet can be fond as far north as the Outer Banks. A larger conch shell at 4" to 14" long, the Queen Helmet Conch is a beautifully ornate and heavy shell that is roughly triangular with a large body whorl and several rows of small pointy knobs. Underneath, the Queen Helmet has a large opening that is dark red or salmon and has 10-12 small but strong and distinctive teeth. Helmet Conchs can be found in sand or in water up to 30 feet deep. Though rare for North Carolina beachcombers, the Queen Helmet conch can be found in a selection of southern North Carolina beaches.

Moon Snail or Shark's Eye
It is not unusual to find a number of shells that fit into the Moon Shell family on North Carolina's coast. These shells are distinctive, as they are circular in nature with spiral ridges that encompass the top or the entire body of the shell. A perfect example is the Common American Sundial. A gorgeous flat and circular shell, the Sundial is covered with spiral ridges and white or a pale yellow with lots of golden brown spots. Other shell members of this family include the Naticas, Periwinkles, and the common Ear Shell, which literally looks like an ear with a flat body with a spiral along the slightly curved-in top of the shell.

But one of the most common and ornate shells that can be found on any North Carolina beach throughout the year is the Shark Eye. Ranging from 1/4" to a full 3", the Shark Eye is wide, smooth and dome-shaped with slightly corvex whorls. The Shark Eye is distinctive for the almost bluish center of the whorl, smack in the middle of the shell like an eye, and giving the Shark Eye its appropriate name. The Shark Eye is very common from New England to Florida and feeds on clams and other bivalves that it finds in the sand, boring small neat holes in their valves. A live Shark Eye is a peculiar sight, as their snail body extends well past their shell. Live Shark Eyes can occasionally be spotted along the ocean wash, in a section of beach with gentler waves.

Some of the most colorful shells that you might scoop up from the shoreline from winter through summer, in the ocean or sound, are scallops. There are a myriad of shells in the scallop family, about 350 different species worldwide, and from the simple white Atlantic File Shell to the stunningly intricate Lion's Paw, a number of these scallops call the waters of the North Carolina coast home. With a flurry of colors that range from pastel pinks and yellows to stark white with burgundy spots, scallops, although small, are showpiece shells.

Scallops range from 1/4" up to 11" long, and consist of two nearly identical valves, or two different individual shells, that might wash up connected or more commonly separate, onto the beach. The individual shells are circular with deep ridges that run from the base of the shell to the tips. At the bottom of the shell, are two pointed "ears" which fan out on either sides of the circular body. Scallops have well developed light sensitive eyes along their edge, and many tentacles. Many adult scallops can actually swim, but can only do when they are escaping a predator, like a starfish. A number of scallops are fished commercially and available at local seafood restaurants, and the simple shape of the scallop has inspired artists and craftsmen throughout the centuries.

Some of the scallop species you might encounter along a beachcombing expedition include the Zigzag Scallop, with distinctive reddish brown "zig zags" along the shell, creating 1-3 free form lines, and the Calico Scallop, with red or deep purple spots splattered along the body of the shell. Along North Carolina sound waters, you will likely come across an Atlantic Bay Scallop. This scallop is white to dark gray with concentric color bands, and ribs that are often darker than the rest of the shell, and ears that are often spotted with brown patches. These scallops, both live and the shell alone, are found in shallow inshore waters, such and sounds and bays that lead to offshore waters.

Coquina Clams
Common, but stunningly beautiful, beachcombers are just as likely to stumble upon a live coquina as the shell itself. On a summer beach walk, examine the sand close to the ocean wash. As the waves recede, you just might spot dozens of little colorful clams digging their way in and out of the sand. These are Coquina Clams, and they are plentiful along the North Carolina seashore. In fact, a stretch of beach just south of Nags Head on the Outer Banks dons their name, "Coquina Beach."

If you do not spot patches of the live variety, it is common to find the shells in large shell piles of smaller shells and debris. These shells are tiny, with the largest specimens being 1" long, and come in a fascinating array of colors, from margarine yellow with brown stripes, to bright orange, to faded shades of blue and purple. These shells are perfect for crafts that require smaller colorful shells, and if you need a fresh seafood lunch in a pinch, the live clams can make an excellent soup with a clear broth, potatoes and green or yellow onions.

Remember, this is just a taste of the shells you may encounter, and to properly identify beach finds, the best bet is to stop by a local bookstore. Many stores feature guide books that identify, with photos, the shells that are most commonly found in North Carolina.

Cleaning and Preserving your Finds

With seashells, the proper way to clean your finds varies on whether it is a live or deceased seashell, which is easy to tell. Simply check for the slimy mollusk itself, or smell the shell to see if it is freshly deceased. (A word of caution - smelling a recently deceased shell is not the most pleasant task.)

Remember, again, it might be a good idea to check with local authorities where you will be gathering the seashells, as some areas prohibit the practice of collecting live specimens. If you are lucky enough to gather some live seashells, there are a few methods of cleaning that can be followed.

This one is by far the easiest to do. Find an area in your yard where you do not mind digging a hole, and bury the live or recently deceased seashells about 18 " deep, or deep enough so that curious animals will not dig them up. Let them remain buried until insects, larvae, worms and bacteria remove all the tissue. Be patient, as this will take at least a couple of months, and the longer the better.

If you would rather have your shells faster, then this method will be just as effective. Place the seashells in a water tight bag, cover with water then place them in the freezer, just like you would fresh fish. When the shells are ready to clean, take them out of the freezer and let them thaw at room temperature. After they are completely defrosted, you should be able to grab hold of the animal inside and gently pull it out.

Take a pot of water large enough to hold the seashells you are cleaning and bring the water to a boil. Place the seashells in the water and allow them to boil a few minutes - longer for larger or a great number of seashells. Using tongs, remove a shell and hold it with gloves or towel so you do not burn yourself, and gently pull out the animal tissue inside.

This is an easy method if you do not mind the lingering odor in your microwave. How long you cook the shell varies by the microwave itself, the number of shells and the size of the shells, so this method is really trial and error. Just bare in mind that this may be a "last resort" method, as cleaning a new shell might not be worth enduring the smell that remains.

Once the animal has been removed, or if you are dealing with a shell with no mollusk remaining inside, many collections find that bleaching is an optimum way to preserve a shell. After no tissue remains, soak the seashells in a 50-50 solution of bleach and water. There is no set time to let them soak because it various by the type of seashells and quantity of the seashells being cleaned. Just be sure to remove them after the periostracum is gone, or the flaky leathery covering that covers most live seashells, is gone. If your shell does not have the leathery covering, then avoid the bleach, as it can occasionally strip away the shells' vibrant color.

If after bleaching, there are still some barnacles and other matter on the seashells, you can use an instrument such as a dental pick, water pick or scrub brush to pick off the material. If the lip of any of your seashells is chipped or rough and the natural state is not important to you, try using a rotary grinder, file or a Dremel tool to smooth down the lip. A coat of baby oil, or even clear nail polish for a fresh-from-the-ocean look will make your shells shine.

What to Do with Your Seashells

While any find can hold a prime location on any living room mantel or immediately light up a China cabinet or decorative shelf, craft folks love using seashells and seashell pieces for works of art, home decor or simply great presents.

While the variety of crafts you can make is limited only by your imagination, consider the following ideas as launching points for your own personalized projects.

You will need: Seashells and seashell pieces, fishing line, beading wire or specialty bracelet and necklace material, a glue gun or crazy glue, nail polish, and jewelry pieces, like necklace/bracelet hooks and earring studs. These can be found at most craft stores, or larger chain stores with a craft section.

Best shells to use: Small to medium shells, preferably with holes for necklaces and bracelets, and somewhat similar for earrings. (Note: Whole Coquina Clams, with two separate shells on one bivalve, make beautiful matching earrings.)

How to do it: Coat all the shells with a heavy coat of clear nail polish so they look like they just washed up from the ocean, and allow them to dry. For earrings, apply glue to the studs and place similar or perfectly matching shells, (like two shells from a Scallop or Coquina), to the studs. Dry, wear, and look nautically fabulous. For bracelets and necklaces, string shells along a strand of fishing line or other material. Glue lightly, or tie each shell in knots, if you want them to appear sporadically. You can also add beads or pearls in between the shells, wherever your creativity leads you. Once your "string" of shells is complete, apply the hooking mechanism at both ends.

Holiday Ornaments
You will need: Seashells, clear nail polish, a glue gun or crazy glue, and ribbon, strings of beads, glitter, etc.

Best shells to use: Whole Scallops, Clams, Moon Snails, and Arc Shells.

How to do it: Coat all the shells with a heavy coat of clear nail polish. Once shells are dry, loop a ribbon or string of beads and glue it to the back of the shell, creating a "hanger" for the ornament. (If you have two similar shells, you can even glue them together, with the loop of ribbon in between the two shells.) Then decorate each individual shell any way you would like: add glitter, glue a string of beads along the edge of the shell, or even paint holiday designs on the shell.

Island Planters
You will need: Seashells, potting soil, small hardy plants, like spider plants, ivy, cactus, and ornamental sweet potatoes.

Best shells to use: Big Whelks and Conchs: Shells with a large opening you can fill with dirt. (Holes on the bottom of the shell are preferable for draining.)

How to do it: Clean the shell out thoroughly to remove any sand and salt particles which can damage the plant. Then fill the mouth or opening of the shell with dirt and plant your favorite indoor or outdoor houseplants. Water as needed, and make sure you put a plate or bowl underneath for shells with holes on the bottom for drainage.

Wall Hangings
You will need: A nice thin piece of driftwood, approx. 12" to 18" long, seashells, rustic twine, fishing line or strong thread, nails or tacks.

Best shells to use: Small decorative shells with tiny holes in them, large enough to pull thread or fishing line through.

How to do it: Create strings of shells by looping the fishing line or thread through each shell and tying a knot, creating an even 8" - 12" long string of a dozen shells or so. If the driftwood is sturdy enough, space tacks or nails along the piece of driftwood and tie on each string of shells. If not, simply tie each string of shells to the piece of driftwood. Essentially, you are forming a "beaded curtain" of shells along the piece of driftwood. Once this is complete, add hardy twine to each side of the piece of driftwood or around each of the nails, gathering and tying the individual pieces at the top, and creating a hanger for the wall hanging.

Beach Mirrors
You will need: Lots of shells, a glue gun or crazy glue, clear nail polish, and a plain mirror with no frame, or a frame you can decorate. You can also get cut pieces of mirror at a hardware store and simply add a hanger to the back.

Best shells to use: Small, decorative shells, or pretty shell pieces.

How to do it: Glue the shell pieces around the mirror, overlapping each other so there are no spaces of mirror visible. Once glue has dried, coat the shells with nail polish to make them shine.

Shell Lamps
You will need: Lots of shells, clear nail polish, and a clear lamp base set. (These are available at most craft stores, and even larger chain stores, like Wal-mart.)

Best shells to use: Small, decorative shells or pretty shell pieces, or a collection of your favorites that you just cannot fit on the shelf.

How to do it: Before putting the set lamp together, (or first removing the lamp and light mechanisms so you can fill the clear vase), add your shells and fill it to the top. You may find it helpful to put any unsightly lamp parts into the vase, and surround them with the shells, and then simply secure all the lamp parts. This is an easy craft project for those with buckets of shells that need a home. If you cannot find lamps conducive for the project, there are many available online.

Napkin Holders
You will need: Seashells, clear nail polish.

Best shells to use: Medium whelks and conch pieces, large moon snails with holes.

How to do it: This is a perfect use for those almost-whole-but-not-quite Whelks and Moon Snails that have gaping holes. Simply find shell pieces that will be able to hold a looped napkin, coat with nail polish, and serve. You can also apply strings of beads or ribbon with a hot glue gun or crazy glue along the jagged edges of the napkin holder to make them more distinguished.

A Simple Collection
You will need: Seashells, a picture box frame purchased at a craft store, or a simple attractive piece of driftwood, hot glue gun or crazy glue, and a paint pen, if desired.

Best shells to use: Your very favorites

How to do it: To ensure that you keep your memories attached to each shell, simply place the shells on a picture box frame or a piece of driftwood, and write the name, date, or memory associated with each shell. This is truly a personal project, and you can arrange, and label the shells any way you would like.

Whether you use your shells for a selection of creative crafts or simply keep them in a memory box to take out on occasion and admire, the beaches of North Carolina provide ample opportunities for all to enjoy the beautiful shells found here. Many take these small treasures, from an ornate and indistinguishable piece to a truly one of a kind rare find, from the beach to home as a reminder of a fantastic vacation. Remember, even if you come up empty handed on occasion, the true joy of shell collecting is not finding the ideal specimen, but simply enjoying the relaxing hunt along the shore.

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