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Collecting Sea Shells on the Carolina Coast


  • Published: 2008-12-15 (Revised/Updated 2015-03-07) : Author: S Duncan
  • Synopsis: Hunting for sea shells along the populated beaches of North and South Carolina USA.

While people often find shells along the populated beaches of North and South Carolina, some places are still better than others for shell hunting. Also, timing plays a role in shell hunting, such as searching at low tide or after a storm. For example, during the summer of 2008, the Grand Strand beach renourishment project brought in many deep-water shells, pumped to the surface along with the fresh sand brought to strength the shoreline.

What tales the sands, shells, and seas can tell us about their adventures around the world. Every minute of every day, the ocean's water moves the sand and shells around to a different spot, always moving. Most of the time we crunch over the top of these and think nothing about them.

On occasion, something about the color or shape of a shell prompts us to bend over and pick up a colorful shell or oddly shaped piece of driftwood, but with over 700-1,000 species of shells and untold numbers of grains of sand and other particles on the beach, trillions of items, we tend to take them all for granted. However, their stories are diverse and fascinating!

While people often find shells along the populated beaches of North and South Carolina, some places are still better than others for shell hunting.

Also, timing plays a role in shell hunting, such as searching at low tide or after a storm. For example, during the summer of 2008, the Grand Strand beach re-nourishment project brought in many deep-water shells, pumped to the surface along with the fresh sand brought to strength the shoreline. Finding unusual shells from these deep-water treasures at Cherry Grove or North Myrtle Beach or around Grande Shores Resort at 77th has been especially exciting this year! Other places to find shells along the Carolina coastline include Huntington State Park, Hilton Head, Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island near Charleston, Edisto Beach State Park (north end), and the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Certainly, these are just a few, not all, of the prime spots, and many people love to find their own spots to keep secret for themselves!

How can you uncover the secrets of these shore side resources

One way is by identifying shell names. Find a good reference book, web site, or CD. Once you know the name of something found on the beach, you can learn more about it from your sources. One of the more common shells in the Carolinas is the turkey-wing shell. This washes up frequently on our Carolina shores and has been found as far south at Venezuela and east to Bermuda. Measuring just over two inches long and oblong in shape, with one side bulging out and the other side fairly straight, the shell usually has three or more colors (shades of red, rust, brown, chocolate, cream, white) in the shape of a bird's wings.

Another popular shell is the keyhole urchin or common sand dollar.

This animal lives in the shallows of the coastal area, burrowing under the sand for protection, and it feeds on algae and other soft food sources at the shoreline. The legend of the sand dollar links to the Christmas story because some collectors determined that its markings symbolize the birth, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ.

The lettered olive, the South Carolina state shell, is shaped a bit like a tube or roll with a smooth surface in a brownish-green-cream color. Not large (approximately 66mm in length and 20mm wide), the lettered olive has a low spire and no teeth. The gastropod who lives inside pulls his mantle flap over himself to seal the opening when threatened, so if you collect a lettered olive, first determine if the shell's inhabitant still lives there before taking the shell home. Certainly, the shell's occupant would prefer to be left there on the beach by the water.

Of course, finding sea treasures comes with responsibility, and with shells the responsibility is to ensure that the wildlife stays at the beach. Oftentimes, people collect the "perfect" sand dollar or shell, forgetting that it already has an owner, the sea creature who lives in it. Look carefully at the items in your collection bucket for movement, color variations, any difference between live or dead items. Sometimes an inhabited shell is hard to discern and not inclined to move around to tell you that he is there, so look carefully. Dead sand dollars, for example, are white or pale in appearance, whereas a living sand dollar is dull gray or brown and fuzzy. When in doubt, leave it at the beach.

Collecting seashells enriches our lives for many reasons, not least of which is their reminder of our walks along the beach to find them-endless summer. If you have collected Carolina shells, we hope they will remind you of our shores so that you will come back some day soon and see what new treasures have washed up on the sand.

Reference: S Duncan, Staff Writer at Myrtle Beach Seaside Resorts

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