July 12, 2013
A guide to beachcombing on the Outer Banks
By PAT GARBERCoastal Review Online
has it that Blackbeard buried his treasure on the island of Ocracoke,
and every once in a while some enthusiastic believer goes treasure
hunting for a stash of gold. He's not likely to find buried gold, but
there is most definitely treasure to be found on these barrier islands.
The beaches of our coast are often littered with interesting
shells and other sea life, driftwood, and odd flotsam-- all gifts to
the person who know what to look for.
The objects that litter
the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound are usually washed
up by the tide and waves. They may come from a few feet out from the
shore or from hundreds of miles away. They may be relatively new or
thousands of years old. They may be naturally occurring, or include
such man-made items as sea glass, pieces of old shipwrecks, or even a
note in a bottle, washed up on the beach from far away.
best time to go beachcombing is at low tide, when the water has receded
and the most of the beach is accessible. Use a tide chart, often found
in local newspapers and bait and tackle shops, to learn when low tide
The tides are lowest when there is a full or new moon.
Early morning is also a good time to go, before other folks get out and
pick up the prize shells. Shelling is especially good after a storm or
hurricane, especially if the wind was blowing from the east.
along the Outer Banks offer the best beachcombing and shelling because
long stretches of them are protected and they are closer to the Gulf
Stream, that highway of water that flows along the Southeast coast.
South of the Outer Banks shell collecting is fitful because
the beaches are largely developed beaches and that the Gulf Stream is
further offshore. If the Scotch bonnet is one of your target shells, as
it is for many collectors, Portsmouth Island and Core Banks -- not to
mention -- Ocracoke are your best bets for finding it.
the many kinds of shells or mollusks, seen on the ocean beaches are
calico scallops, lightening and channeled whelks, American cockles,
Atlantic surf clams, and common jingle shells.
Some of the
favorite finds include moonshells, olive shells, American augers, and
several species of wentletraps. Sawtooth pens, their shells so thin and
fragile that you can almost see through them, can occasionally be found
whole, and sometimes a stretch of beach will reveal dozens of tiny,
colorful coquina shells.
Scotch Bonnets, the state shell of
North Carolina, can often be found, and a lucky beachcomber might come
across a prized emperor or queen helmet. Not too long ago. one
fortunate beachcomber found the paper-thin shell of a paper nautilus, a
relative of the octopus, pushed by storm waves from its home in the
Make sure that the shell you pick up is unoccupied
before you take it home. Hermit crabs often use moon shells and whelk
shells as mobile homes. They are not the kind that can be purchased in
gift shops, and if you take them home. they will soon die.
people search for perfect shells, but some of the most interesting ones
are often battered and broken. Oyster shells come in all kinds of
sizes, shapes and colors that may appeal to an artistic eye for use in
jewelry-making or wind chimes.
Also of interest are the remains
of other sea creatures. The carapace, for example, of blue, calico, or
horseshoe crabs or the egg cases of whelks or skates are always nice
finds. Several kinds of sea stars, often called starfish, sometimes
wash up on the beaches in multitudes after storms and can be dried for
The southern end of Ocracoke, known as “South
Point” is a good place to find sand dollars, a kind of echinoid with a
lovely five-petaled design which bleaches white when dry. The
lucky beachcomber might happen upon that rare find, a perfectly coiled
and dried sea horse, carried ashore from the Gulf Stream.
the remains of a sea turtle or a great whale will wash ashore.
Fascinating as it is to see them, do not take them with you. It is
against the law to possess parts form endangered species, and there is
a stiff fine for having them in your possession.
The beaches at
Portsmouth Island, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, provides
especially good opportunities for shelling, as they are less often
visited by beachcombers. To get to Portsmouth you have to take a boat
ride from Ocracoke and walk to the beach, or you can take your
4-wheel-drive vehicle on a ferry from Atlantic and drive north along
the ocean shore. It is worth the trip, since people often return
with bucketfuls of whelks and other desirable shells.
Chestnut is one of Ocracoke's most ardent shell collectors. A resident
of the island for 15 years now, she began coming to Ocracoke when just
a child, picking up shells and other items she found. She learned to
love beachcombing with her grandmother and her mother, who often left
their home in Rocky Mount to vacation at Atlantic Beach.
and her husband often go shelling on the Ocracoke beach, and when
possible take a boat to Portsmouth Island. Jane makes jewelry using her
shell treasures and sells it at Ride the Wind Surf Shop, her and
husband's surf shop. Not only does she use the shells themselves, she
uses molding compounds to make molds of the shells and fashions silver
casts of the originals. She also uses the shells in other designs,
including a spectacular glass covered coffee table, which contains
intricate designs, all fashioned out of shells she has found. She makes
mirrors bordered with scallop shells and Christmas ornaments from sand
dollars and white scallop shells.
Some of Jane's
favorites include helmet shells, tulip shells, wentletraps and
bittersweets. Once she found a real treasure, a dried sea horse, at the
beach near the Pony Pens, and after one storm her husband found a
14-inch horse conch. Atlantic carrier shells, whose middles contain a
gooey substance to which other bits of shell cling, are also some of
The treasures that can be discovered walking the
beaches of North Carolina's Outer Banks are endless, but if you really
want to enjoy them, take the time to learn the natural history of the
creatures that left them behind.
The Ocracoke Museum has on
display an extensive shell collection, donated by Ruth Cochran's
family, with interesting bits of information about each mollusk. The
N.C. Coastal Federation also has a shellfish collection on display at
its headquarters in Ocean in Carteret County. Or you can read more
about them in any of a number of books on Atlantic seashores.
each shell, each piece of flotsam, each skeletal remain, is a story,
and these stories are the real treasures to be found on the beaches of
Hatteras, Ocracoke, and Portsmouth Islands.
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
comments powered by