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Back You are here: Home Features Events and Features Fort Fisher Aquarium Ask The Aquarium: Q. My family and I like to look for shells. Are there better times and places to search?

Ask The Aquarium: Q. My family and I like to look for shells. Are there better times and places to search?

Shell collectors should check their finds for live animals such as hermit crabs that often inhabit empty shells. (Photo courtesy of John Mauser for N.C. Aquariums)

ANSWER - Aquarium educators and volunteers get this question often.
Shell seekers can ratchet up their chances of finding good specimens by searching an hour or so before and after low tide. Remember to check along the high tide line and at the base of dunes, where storm tides and full-moon tides can deposit prime specimens.
Seasonally the best shelling on North Carolina beaches is in winter, when strong winds and rough seas are more likely to bring shells on shore, and fewer people are combing beaches. Early spring and fall are also good times, and anytime after a storm is worth a look. Storms can cast troves of treasures onshore or sweep beaches clean. Obviously, the less populated the beach the better the chance of finding good shells any time of year. Islands accessible by boat or ferries are good hunting grounds, but even then ocean castoffs depend on recent winds, tides and currents. Beaches of national seashores can also be good sites, as can areas around inlets.
Often shells that appear empty may still contain the original resident – or a hidden inhabitant such as a hermit crab. Unlike its hard-shelled cousins, the hermit crab has a soft abdomen. For protection the crab must live in a shell that once belonged to another animal, usually a mollusk like a whelk or moon snail. As the hermit crab grows, it seeks out a larger, empty shell and upgrades. Be sure to give your shell a close once over before claiming it as your own. Shells that contain live animals should never be collected.
As mentioned in a recent Ask the Aquarium column, most shell seekers are familiar with the fragile white sand dollar, a much sought-after beach souvenir. White sand dollars are the “skeletons” of former live sand dollars and are collectable. Their white color comes from having been bleached by the sun. Live sand dollars, on the other hand, are light to dark brown, or sometimes purplish or greenish, and covered with very short, nearly invisible bristly spines, particularly on the underside. Live sand dollars should never be collected.
Discover more fun and fascinating facts about North Carolina’s aquatic environments by visiting the aquariums at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island or Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.