Beachcombing has a relaxing sound to it, but it is serious business to lots of people. Think of the beach as a really spread-out flea market, and the people scouring the sand at the crack of dawn as the bargain hunters. And the most dedicated of all, pick their spot and time it just right.
Shell hunting on the beach can be an addictive pursuit and the Outer Banks is the perfect place to feed the addiction. Skilled ‘shellers,’ know the best finds are at low tide right after a strong storm blowing from the east.
There are many quiet beaches with miles of sand to explore, and constant changes in weather keep the sea spitting up treasures galore – although locating them may require hours of searching and a good deal of luck. The rewards can be a bounty of wonderful, one-of-a-kind finds.
“No human craftsman, even if he labored hours and hours, could match the rich detail in the designs of seashells,” wrote author Nancy Rhyne in Carolina Seashells. “Nature spawned the fantastic when she put shells to live on the floors of the seas.”
Sometimes there are days when the pickings are not worth picking up. All a beachcomber gets on those occasions is glorious scenery, salt-soaked breezes and serenity. Not a bad consolation prize. Still, most shell hunters enjoy casual searches, seeking whatever the ocean has kindly left behind for them. Here’s where the fun comes in, and where the thrill of the hunt keeps a shell-seeker coming back for more: from one day to another, from one hour to the next, the beach is different. Each change in wind speed or direction, temperature, moon and tide cycle, sun angle, offshore activity and/or currents can influence the happenstance of what shoreline strollers may encounter.
Know where to look
Anywhere on the Outer Banks is good territory for beachcombing, but there are some basic understandings of the beach that can help make a rewarding experience. First, if you look on the dry parts of the beach, or the spots that are rarely touched by the ebb and flow of the surf, you’ll most likely find broken shells or boring flotsam and jetsam. There are exceptions, of course. If you are lucky enough to find a spot sheltered from the wind – admittedly, there’s not many of those on the Outer Banks – and that has not been visited by humans in a while, there could be undiscovered beauties just lying there waiting to be picked up.
On the northern beaches from Southern Shores to Corolla, there are plenty of stretches of sand with few people to compete with on beachcombing days. Even in the summer, when thousands of tourists flock to Duck and Corolla, there are still not many folks on the beach first thing in the morning.
But there are tricks that beachcombers know that enhance the chances of finding beach booty. For instance, the edge of dunes, jetties and piers can be gathering spots for wind-swept or current-tossed goodies, especially if there was a recent hurricane or nor’easter. The heaviest storms heave shells from the fossil beds on the ocean floor and wash them through churning seas to the beach.
Even the seaweed on the edge of the wet beach – the wrack line – can harbor hard-to-find treasures like sea glass or tiny sea horses that were brought in at high tide. Winter, when the ocean is stirred up most often by frequent storms and the beach is deserted, offers prime opportunity for fantastic hours of beachcombing.
Souvenirs from the sea
Although the Currituck and northern Dare County beaches on the Outer Banks have their share of the sought-after East Coast shells, they do not have the same proximity to the Gulf Stream that Hatteras and Ocracoke have. With its location on hurricane alley and its fast-moving current, the Gulf Stream supplies our southernmost shores with a diverse and often large variety of shells. The solitary pursuit of ocean souvenirs might start out almost like a kind of natural shopping adventure, but it soon turns into a meditative merging with the mysterious makings of a beach ecosystem. You find yourself reflexively stepping backward in sync with the surge of the surf. You give seabirds wide berth, as if sharing a sand sidewalk.
When the light is moving higher in the sky, you see light glinting off seaglass and spotlighting perfect whelks sitting alone at the high tide line. At dusk, you disappear into the shadows as the sinking East Coast sun transforms the sky and sea into deepening shades of red and purple, and the heightening surf pushes you back.
“So beautiful is the still hour of the sea’s withdrawal, as beautiful as the sea’s return when the encroaching waves pound up the beach, pressing to reach those dark rumpled chains of seaweed which mark the last tide,”wrote Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift from the Sea.
“Perhaps this is the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living; simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of a relationship is valid,” she wrote. “And my shells? I can sweep them all into my pocket. They are only there to remind me that the sea recedes and returns eternally.”
So tap into those hunter-gatherer instincts and arm yourself with a sturdy backpack or canvas shopping bag. Don’t forget your sunhat and sunglasses.
Here’s a lowdown of what you could find:
Skate or whelk egg cases (very easy to find)
Whelk egg cases are what you would imagine a skeleton of an eel could look like, that is, if you had no marine biology in school. Whelks are big snails, and they have long yellow-ish cases that are curled like a spring. Skate cases, on the other hand, look like little slick black pouches, hence their name “mermaid’s purse.”
Coquinas, oysters, clams, mussels, cockles, scallops and ark shells (very easy to find)
It would be a safe bet that on any given day, on any given Outer Banks beach, a beachcomber could find most of these kinds of shells. Some, like the mussels and oysters, are ordinary-looking, but others, like colorful scallops, are prettier. The sizes range from tiny coquinas to soap-dish sized clam shells. (Hey, they’re free and they’re great for holding the soap at beach houses. The “imperfect” ones with a hole positioned somewhere in the mid-section? They become perfect fan pulls for the many ceiling fans in cottages!)
Whelks and Conchs (easy to find when broken; rare to find when whole)
These are the probably the “must get” shell for most beachcombers, even those who live here year-round. The large whelks are often confused with conch shells; but whelks are much more common than the conchs, which are more likely to be found on remote, south-facing beaches like on Ocracoke Island. It’s easy to understand why people would get them confused. The lightning whelk, which can get as big as 14 inches, has the similar cone shape with large body whorls. Although the helmet conch can be about the same size, it has a larger opening lined with pink. Such a con
ch would be a rare find on most Outer Banks beaches. But whelks, which can be black, gray or white, are nearly as sought after, and they come in all sizes. The ideal is to find one that has been newly spit out by the surf and is intact. Be warned: it may take some searching before you find a large, unbroken whelk.
Seaglass or beachglass (difficult to find)
Of all beachcombing quests, finding beachglass deserves its own category. Considering that it is mostly a byproduct of glass bottles, it’s no wonder that it is becoming rarer. The pieces of broken glass have been tumbled and smoothed and sanded for years in the ocean, making them appear almost like precious gems.
In the old days, beachglass could be found in all colors, but now the most common shades are opaque white, brown and green. It’s a lucky person who finds red or blue beachglass. Some people have a seemingly freakish ability to locate seaglass, and they brag about it to make ordinary beachcombers jealous. There’s an art to finding any seaglass, no matter its size or color. Look when the light is not too high or too low, so that it’s easy to spot in the sunlight. Search where the tide has deposited mounds of shells and pebbles and seaweed. Dig around a little bit. Try to persuade a successful seaglass hunter to tell you their secret spots (they rarely will, but you might get some hints.)
Scotch Bonnets (extremely rare to find)
The scotch bonnet, the official shell of North Carolina, is about 3 inches in size, nicely plump and sculptured. Its brown square markings make it distinctive, and it is a truly beautiful piece of ocean art. But it’s a rare shell on the Outer Banks, and finding one would be reason to celebrate for any beachcomber worth their salt. Try searching the sea drift after storms or high winds.
Cool pieces of driftwood are also one of those items of seaside debris that beach lovers are always on the lookout for. But findings of nice funky-shaped, artistic driftwood are few and far between. Again, the key is getting to the beach early.Driftwood (dependent on sea conditions, tides, etc)
Sand dollars, starfish, sea urchins, and horseshoe crabs (dependent on sea conditions, tides, etc)
Every beachcomber who has lived on the Outer Banks long enough will exclaim about the day they went to the beach, and it was covered with hundreds of sand dollars or starfish. That’s what makes beachcombing so fun – the ocean is so alive and unpredictable, you never know what it might toss out onto its shores.
Even when there isn’t a blitz of sand dollars, they can be found on our beaches. But it does seem like they will be numerous one day, and not be seen again for a while. So sand dollars are delicate treasures, one of those finds that make nice presents for someone you love.
Sea urchins, like sand dollars, are a delicate, lovely shell. They’re hollow, round white cases, and not surprisingly, are relatives of the sand dollar and starfish.Starfish also are unusual finds, and typically, if you find one, you’ll find several. If you do take them home, make sure you leave them outside to dry for a while, because they can be very stinky.
Horseshoe crabs have a fierce-looking long tail and are always an interesting addition to a shell collection. Just make sure they’re not occupied.
Things to leave alone
Jellyfish are often seen on the beach, or floating in the wash. Go around them and don’t touch them. Even if they’re dead, their tentacles could sting. Some days the beach might be littered with sargassum or dead turtles or even a whale. Strandings of marine animals are common during storms or in cold snaps. But sometimes a seal is just resting on the beach. If you spot an animal, dead or alive, do not touch it or go near it. Call 9-1-1 to report the sighting. And always give a wide berth to turtle nests which may have been marked by volunteers within a yellow-roped enclosure typically up near the dune line. ■ All photos from Shutterstock unless otherwise noted.