Setting sail to shimmery sands and gorgeous crystal shorelines is the beginning of what I call—a fabulous day. The enchanting aroma of applying sunscreen while the salty wind blows by is just the precursor of what’s to come. As a pirate seeks his treasure, I too hunt for that perfect, natural work of art that lives just beneath the water’s surface.
Children collect random broken shells in a sand bucket as if they have discovered treasured gems in the sand. A whimsical, naïve and priceless occurrence that should truly be the way we look at life as adults; trying to find the beauty in all parts of life’s treasures, even the smallest of life’s gifts. There’s just something magical about being the first individual to discover a beautiful seashell, never knowing what colors you are about to unveil to the sun’s rays.
My fascination in shell hunting began when I was a toddler, when my dad taught me how to hunt for sharks’ teeth at Emerald Isle, NC. A snack size Ziploc bag soon turned into a plastic container, which quickly upgraded to a Ball Mason jar. Over the years, I have accumulated over 800 sharks’ teeth in my collection; the largest is 5 inches long. It was always a race between my dad and me to see who could find the first tooth and competitively battle for whose was bigger by the end of the walk; it is still that way.
About five years ago, my passion for seeking sharks’ teeth became accompanied by finding the largest, most wholesome queen helmet shell on Cape Lookout’s point, an island off the coast of Harker’s Island, NC. After my first helmet shell was in my shell bag, I was hooked. It wasn’t a normal shell; it wasn’t a shell that you can find on any beach. To me, it was rare, it was something special. To me, it was my broken shell in my sand bucket…pure joy.
As I grow older, my thirst for adventure and exploration has strengthened and taken root in exploring different islands, particularly uninhabited ones. The more remote the island is, the higher the reward of a rare shell. Remarkably, it’s not as far away and expensive as it sounds. There are many islands just off the coast of North Carolina where beautiful shells can be discovered.
If you haven’t visited the crystal shores of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, it’s a must do trip, if you can withstand the heat! The best way to shell is to start early in the morning at Island Ferry Adventure’s dock in Harker’s Island, North Carolina. It’s a twenty minute ferry to the island. From there, you will hop on your pre-paid twenty minute truck ride out to the point. Upon your arrival you can find whole sand dollars galore on the left side of the point, and whelks, scotch bonnets, queen helmet shells, clams and much more on the right. The search for the perfect shape, the most vibrant color, and the largest shell is on! Oh... and make sure to apply sunscreen once an hour; the sun is scorching and there is no shade (take a cooler of water too!). Whelks usually are bountiful, jet black ones, tan ones, blue ones, broken ones, and almost perfect ones. However, the best quality shells are just knee to waste deep in the water. Helmet shells are a bit harder to locate, but the excitement is worth the search! During one shelling experience, I was beaten down by waves while persistently diving five feet underwater, trying to unearth a large shell. I somewhat forgot that the ocean was over my head, but it didn’t bother me because I had a mission. Did I forget to mention that the water is almost crystal clear? Unfortunately, even with my persistent attempts, that large shell was left at the bottom of the ocean that day for someone else to discover.
About twenty minutes south of Cape Lookout is Beaufort, North Carolina where, just off the coast, is a little island called Bird Shoals. One of the rarest shells in North Carolina can be found on this island, the Sunray Venus shell. These shells are traditionally found in tropical waters surrounding Florida and can be found as far south as Brazil. You have to navigate your way to Bird Shoals by boat, but once you land on the smoldering sand…walk as far as you can and you can discover these shells that have been waiting for you for months. The Sunray Venus shell is named after the Roman goddess of Love and even visualized in the famous painting, the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. What is so special about these shells is that they are a completely different color when they are inhabited. Whole shells are a multitude of colors including black, orange, and metallic, but the dead shells are cream, pink, and burgundy. It is a miraculous experience to find one living under the water, knowing you are the first human to pick it up, see the beauty and return it to its habitat. This beach’s tranquil background is Carrot Island, where the famous North Carolina wild horses roam free with Beaufort’s water front peering from behind. It’s definitely a contender in my top things to do in a weekend.
Through years of experience, I have discovered that the true key to a successful shelling day is to make sure you take along a good attitude, great company, a glass of carefree and plenty of persistence. It’s also important to schedule your day right after high tide in order to scope out what the waters have strewn across the sand. Summer time means beach, sun, water and relaxation to this hard-working girl! I am so grateful that I am able to take some time off during the summer to enjoy the outdoors. But most importantly, I love being able to feed my passion for finding beautiful works of art in nature. Know of an island I need to explore? Share it with me and I will go!