“Like seashells, we are beautiful and unique, each with a story to tell.” — Unknown
In celebration of National Seashell Day and the First Day of Summer, Authentic Florida is revisiting our guided shelling adventure we had the pleasure to do with “shellebrity” Pam Rambo a couple of years ago. Thanks to Pam’s guidance, we were able to discover some of the best areas in the world for shelling. Read on to check out our favorite spot for South Florida shelling and all of the fun and unique things to do in the area!
Shelling in South Florida
Florida has some of the best shelling in the world, especially along the beaches of Ft. Myers and Sanibel Island.
Why there, you may ask? Sanibel Island is considered the best shelling beach in the U.S., because the island’s unique east-west boomerang shape captures the shells like a ladle, whereas many barrier islands have a northwest orientation. Slowly deposited by the rolling waves, more than 400 species of shelling sea treasures are here for beachcombers to enjoy.
In Florida’s Lee County, Sanibel Island, Ft. Myers Beach, Lovers Key State Park, Cayo Costa State Park, and Big Hickory Island are the most popular places for shelling with peak season occurring May through October.
To “Shellebrate” this special day and the official beginning of summer, we hopped aboard a cruise to Big Hickory Island, south of Ft. Myers Beach with “Shell-ebrity” seashell expert Pam Rambo to learn all about shells and shelling.
An Authentic Shelling Adventure
The open-air pontoon boat was docked at Salty Sam’s Marina near Ft. Myers Beach just across San Carlos Bay from Sanibel Island. Passengers were boarding dressed in shorts, hats, and sandals and the smell of sunscreen wafted through the air. Buckets, bags, and small coolers were in tow.
Pam Rambo, iLoveShelling.com
A tan, blonde-haired bubbly woman dressed in aquamarine-colored shorts and matching flip flops greeted everyone as they boarded. Pam Rambo was our leader and would be guiding us on our sea shelling adventure. As the boat began to leave the dock, she welcomed us on board and asked, “Who knows the name of this shell? As Pam held up a spiral shell in her hand, we closely examine it. A woman immediately shouted, “That’s a worm shell!”
Pam smiled and acknowledged her correct answer and the woman was delighted with the affirmation. Pam shared that the worm shell, and many others such as the Lettered Olive, the Horse Conch, and the Lighting Welk, would be some of the shells we were likely to find that day … they were typical of what was found off southwest Florida’s coastal waters near Sanibel Island, the renowned “shell capital of the world.”
A longtime Sanibel Island resident, Pam has years of shelling experience and is regarded as both an evangelist for shelling, and self-confessed “shellunatic.” At this time, she was hosting beach tours. She also owns a website filled with South Florida shelling information called “iloveshelling.com.” Several guests on the boat the day we took the tour were Pam’s devotees and shared her passion for shells and shelling.
Pam then passed around her “lucky shell bucket” overflowing with colorful, local shells. She asked us each to select one and place in our pockets. In this way, she hopes we will garner “good luck” for our upcoming beach hunt.
As we combed through the lucky bucket, we were thinking about all the shells we might find on our adventure. We had questions like: Will we find a Sunray Venus, Florida Cone, Fighting Conch, or even the rare Junonia?
Shelling enthusiasts aboard the boat
Our 25-minute boat ride took us south along the Intracoastal Waterway en route to Big Hickory Island, southeast of Sanibel Island. The short cruise gave Pam an opportunity to share some of her shelling tips:
“The beaches change every day. So before you go shelling, check the tide charts. One hour before or after low tide is usually the best time to go. A full moon or new moon is another good time to shell because of the extreme tides.”
“And don’t forget about the winds. If you are shelling on Sanibel, northwest winds are good for the north end of the island towards Captiva. Southwest winds are best for the south end of Sanibel. And shelling after a storm is usually ideal.”
And Pam reminded us of the Golden Shelling Rule: Leave any shell with a living creature inside. She grins and says “Let’s leave the live creatures so they stay healthy and breed for future generations.”
Shells and driftwood on Florida’s beaches
Storm-ravaged trees were scattered around, slowly turning to driftwood in the bright sun and salty breeze. A bird shrieks overhead. The large white, brown, and black coastal bird known as an Osprey is circling above clutching a fish in its talons, ready to take to its nearby nest.
Pam Rambo leads shelling in South Florida
Some in the crowd follow Pam closely to learn more about the “art of shelling” while others scurry down the beach to find the fresh batch of incoming shells. As we reach the shelling grounds most everyone assumes the hunched over position known as the “Sanibel Stoop” as they scan the sands for nature’s precious gems.
“Don’t be in a rush,” shares Rambo, “it takes a while to train your eye,” as she moves – almost in slow motion – scanning the beach while providing tips to the small group tagging along. A woman finds a shell known as an Angel Wing and Pam quickly identifies the fragile shell, sharing further tips for finding them. Rambo is a walking encyclopedia of shelling knowledge with her years of experience as both a shelling enthusiast and artist.
With every step, someone is picking up a specimen and examining it, stashing it in their container. Sand Dollars, Turkey Wings, Kitten’s Paws, tiny Coquinas, and Tulips are found as everyone peers to see the shells and learn the names.
Some shellers use tools and bags for the hunt
We spend almost two hours on the beach looking for our shelling gems. Some participants are serious shellers, using special tools with long-handled sieved baskets similar to shovels. Others are happy to use their hands to sift through the sand, and some are even content just to enjoy the beach walk and swim in the Gulf of Mexico.
Before we know it, Pam calls for us to begin returning to the boat. We try to get in a few more minutes of shelling before we have to return, happy to have a new stash to add to our growing collection.
Sight Sea-R Cruises
As we pull anchor for the return trip, Pam circles around the boat to examine the finds. She also answers questions from the group, many of whom are staying on Sanibel Island, providing tips so they may continue their shelling experience there.
Pam Rambo examines the “loot” from shellers
Then, one of the passengers spots a pod of dolphins off the stern of the boat. “Dolphin!” Two dolphins are following the boat and jumping in and out of the waves. It’s a magical end to our day. Our trip is complete with newly found treasures and fond memories of our shelling adventure.
Pam is currently on shell-batical, but there are several other South Florida shelling tour options available:
- Adventures in Paradise: https://www.adventureinparadiseinc.com/cruises/shelling-and-lunch-cruise/
- Captain Bubby’s Island Tours: http://captainbubbys.com/down-by-the-sea/
- Captiva Cruises: https://www.captivacruises.com/beach—shelling.html
- Island Time Cruise: http://www.islandtimecruise.com/cruises.html
- Sanibel Island Cruiseline: http://www.sanibelislandcruiseline.com/index.html
- Sight Sea-R Cruises: https://www.sightseaflorida.com/cruises/shelling-and-island-exploration-tour/
Cayo Costa Island is also a South Florida shelling paradise
Tips for Shelling
- Be patient, and open to all the gifts of the sea, the rolling waves, the other treasures that roll with the tide, be sure to watch for dolphins
- Follow the tides: Shelling is best during the hour before and after low tide; Look for shells at the surf line
- Shell at the end of islands where the current deposits most of the shells
Visiting Sanibel Island
Just offshore of Fort Myers on Florida’s Gulf is Sanibel Island, offering an island paradise with spacious beaches, world-class shelling, and exceptional fishing. With a range of accommodations including tropical and quaint lodgings, delicious restaurants, and a renowned wildlife refuge – it makes the ideal beach getaway.
To get a good overview of the island, stop at the Sanibel & Captiva Visitors Center. The staff is very friendly and they have plenty of information to make your visit special.
Things to Do
Even if you are just there for a day, you may want to park the car, grab your beach chairs and watch a sunset. Look for the Green Flash at the moment the sun hits the Gulf on the horizon. If you experience a brief flash of bright green it is said to be good luck.
Where to Stay
Find your beach. For “Old Florida” accommodations try the Island Inn. Accommodating guests since 1895, the Island Inn is the oldest (and newest) hotel on Sanibel. In 2018, the Inn opened the doors to the first new hotel building on Sanibel in nearly 40 years.
Or stop at Mitchell’s Sand Castles for cute cottages on the beach. Amenities include bikes/helmets, beach chairs/umbrellas, and kayaks at no extra charge.
Stroll through the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
Learn even more about the treasures you found while shelling in South Florida with a visit to the Shell Museum. Colorful displays of local shells from Southwest Florida and around the world make this a one-of-a-kind stop. NOTE: The Museum is closed for renovations. They will reopen in mid-July … and there’s a new aquarium coming in 2020.
Visit the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve
Sanibel’s Ding Darling is one of the nation’s top nature preserves. Begin your morning on the informative one-hour tram tour along Wildlife Drive. Keep your eyes on the tidal mudflats where you are likely to see pink roseate spoonbills, herons, and egrets, and if you look up, you often see ospreys wheeling in the wind.
Stop at the Sanibel Lighthouse
On the east end of the island is where you’ll discover the historic Sanibel Lighthouse (Point Ybel, Periwinkle Way), beach, and fishing pier. The lighthouse has been around since 1884.
Where to Eat
Here are a few of our favorite restaurants:
- Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille for fish tacos
- Lazy Flamingo for fresh fish
- Over Easy Café for the stuffed coconut pancakes and sunrise mimosas
- Bailey’s General Store for the fresh coffee bar and specialty food items, or grab a picnic lunch
Don’t Miss …
The Bubble Room, Captiva Island
Drive north to Captiva Island. Park in the village and walk. Have lunch at the eclectic Bubble Room decorated with zany Hollywood and Christmas kitsch (be sure to try the Bubble Bread). Then meander to The Mucky Duck neighborhood pub for a cocktail on the beach – the sunset gathering spot.
Chapel-by-the-Sea, Captiva Island
For a special treat, check out the quaint Chapel-by-the-Sea that served as both a schoolhouse and church surrounded by sea grapes and gumbo limbo trees.
Check out another one of our favorite places to go shelling – Shell Key!