August 25, 2017

What Kind of Shells Can you Find on the Shelly Island Sandbar?
A Quick Beachcomber’s Guide


Dedicated shell seekers all along Hatteras Island are hooked on Shelly Island, and for good reason. The long sandbar that recently formed off the tip of Cape Point definitely lives up to its unofficial name.

But eavesdrop on any conversation among the thr

ongs of visitors who are rooting through shell piles, and you’ll notice that not everyone knows what they’re looking for, and/or what they’ve just found.

Here are a few snippets that were overheard on recent shelling expeditions to the Shelly Island sandbar…

“I forgot what this is called, but it’s something like spirly-whirly shell.”

“All the sea glass here [originated] from beer bottles thrown off the Point.”

“That’s an oval shell. You can tell because it’s got a circle shape.”  

“I found a conch!”

“Have you found any conchs?

“Look at all the conchs!”

And, arguably the most common sentiment heard on Shelly Island is:

“What the hell is this???”

The confusion and misidentification is certainly understandable. There are hundreds of different types of shells that land on the mile-long sandbar on a daily basis, which includes some species that are rare for the cooler mid-Atlantic waters.

With that being said, visitors who are planning a shelling expedition to our now famous sandbar will want to keep their eyes open for these common or uncommon finds that have been spotted this summer on Shelly Island.

Whelks (not conchs) – One of the literally biggest scores on Shelly Island are the whelks, which are commonly misidentified as conch shells. There are three types that regularly wash ashore on our local island beaches: knobbed whelks, lightning whelks, and channel whelks. Lightning and knobbed whelks look very similar, and can be easily differentiated by their opening – if the shell coils and opens to the right, it’s a knobbed whelk. If it coils and opens to the left, it’s a lightning whelk. Channel whelks are a little rarer, and have fat circular channels and no spikes. Whelks can vary in size from 1” to a maximum of 16” (for the lightning whelk) and are always worth keeping for their ornamental value alone.

Conchs– Conchs can indeed be found on Shelly Island - namely helmet conchs – but they are extremely rare and more likely to wash up in bits and pieces. If you do find a queen or king helmet conch, (which will be identifiable by its fat body and long, shell-length opening with a dark red interior and small ‘teeth’) consider yourself lucky, as these suckers are hard to find intact.

Olive Shells – Lettered olive shells, which have been called “Buxton Bullets” by several locals, are also very common on Shelly Island. These long cylindrical shells are identified by their equally long opening, tight spiral at the top, and patterned exterior. The “newer” ones are especially eye-catching, as they have a deep violet interior to match the detailed and shiny body.

Moon Snails / Shark Eyes – Circular with a central spiral and matching circular opening, moon snails and shark eyes are another eye-catching find that regularly washes ashore. Measuring from ˝” to 4” or more, these clunky but attractive shells are also worth holding onto.

Scotch Bonnet – For a shell to be deemed the State Shell of North Carolina, the scotch bonnet certainly is difficult to find. If you do find this egg-shaped bauble, however, you can rest assured that you’ve acquired a treasure. With a long opening and a fat lip, and an exterior that’s typically speckled with small brown patches, scotch bonnets are as eye-catching as they are rare.

Ear shells – An ear shell is pretty easy to identify based on its name alone. Flat and shaped like an ear, with a small spiral near the top of the shell, ear shells or “baby ears” are pretty and delicate finds that are fairly common on the Shelly Island sandbar.

Sundials – perfectly circular with a long spiral that ends in the center, sundials are rare for our area but have been spotted in recent weeks on Shelly Island. Measuring 1” to 2.5”, this unique shell that’s often used as a design for logos, jewelry, and décor is definitely a keeper.

Augers, oyster drillers, margin shells, top shells, periwinkles, wentletraps, and other small gems – Don’t overlook the piles of smaller shells that are found close to the tide line, as this is where you’ll find some of the tiniest – and rarest – gems. Several avid beachcombers have reported finding top shells and nutmegs – intricate but tiny shells that are more commonly found off the coast of Florida – and more common treasures like skinny and spiral augers or conch-like oyster drillers wash up on a regular basis. Though rarely measuring more than an inch, these shells that require great eyesight to locate are stunning finds in their own right.

Limpets – Keep an eye out for these small but distinct shells that are often left behind. Resembling a flattened cone with a keyhole on top, limpets are unique and are not always abundant on the local Hatteras Island shoreline.

Scallops, Clams and other Bivalves– Frequent beachcombers have noted that many of the shells appear to be “giant” on the Shelly Island sandbar, and this is certainly true when it comes to the area’s clam and scallop population. Be on the lookout for more delicate bivalves like angel wings, or spend some time collecting colorful scallops which can double as Christmas ornaments, or fat quahogs which can double as soap dishes or ash trays. As for rarer varieties, the iridescent pen shell arguably takes the cake. Delicate and large, these blackish-brown and shiny shells glisten with a million colors when held up to the light.

VERY rare finds – There have certainly been some unusual finds on the Shelly Island sandbar this summer, (such as the WWII-era ordnance), but on the shelling front, there’s been some amazing scores as well. Spiny murexes, large pear whelks, Florida fighting conchs and horse conchs have all been reported being found at least once, and who knows what else may appear after the next summer storm or offshore hurricane (assuming Shelly Island sandbar is still there.)

So even if you come back relatively empty handed after a trip or two, the most important thing is to keep going back, and keep looking. Repeat visitors report that every trip to Shelly Island sandbar is a little different, with some types of shells all over the sand, and other types completely impossible to find.

Grab a shell book for even better clarification, (Buxton Village Books has a supply), and enjoy Shelly Island to the fullest while it’s still around. With many beachcombers comparing the landscape to the shell-rich islands of Cape Lookout and Portsmouth, Hatteras Island truly has a top notch shelling destination in its own sandy backyard.

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