Whether you hit the sand close to home, or plan an extensive shelling expedition to one of the outlying island destinations, shelling can be an incredible Carolina Beach adventure that certainly pays off.
Easy to enjoy in your own backyard or via a boat trip to an isolated shoreline, visitors who adore beachcombing will find themselves right at home at this coastal destination that has miles of beaches to explore.
So before you launch on your Carolina Beach vacation, be sure and pack along a couple shelling bags, a seashell guide book, and a sense of adventure to enjoy one of coastal North Carolina’s most treasured pastimes.
Where to find Shells in and around Carolina Beach
One of the great aspects of Carolina Beach is that the question isn’t “Where to go shelling?” – It’s “Where can’t you go shelling?”
This town is surrounded by great stretches of ocean-facing shoreline, and virtually any trip to the beach will result in some exceptional finds. Even the busiest beach destinations, like the coastline close to the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, can produce some treasures if shell hunters are staying alert. Best of all, the gently sloping ocean floor throughout the town makes it easy for the most delicate finds to wash ashore perfectly intact.
With that being said, however, there are a few destinations where shell hunters tend to have better luck than others, simply due to the location and the general lack of crowds.
Up your chances of finding a few treasures by paying a visit to these key destinations where the area’s shell hunting is arguably at its best.
Freedman Park – Walk (or drive if you have a permit and 4WD vehicle) past the line of hotels and rental homes and head north to explore the nicely undeveloped beaches of this popular ocean-facing park. The long stretch of shoreline is fine hunting grounds, but die-hard beachcombers will want to keep going north until they reach the Carolina Beach Inlet. Here, treasures can wash up with the tides on a regular basis, both on the sound and ocean-facing sides of the island. Just be sure and arrive early – this park can fill up quickly in the summertime, and the early birds will get the best finds.
Masonboro Island – You’ll need an on-the-water ride to get to this island, (specifically a kayak, water taxi, or boat tour), but once you’re onshore, you’ll be treated to 8.4 miles of undeveloped beaches where visitors rarely tread. Watch for whelks and other prized finds around low tide and around the tidal flats, where great shells can lay, undiscovered, for hours – if not for days.
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area – Nicely easy to get to, with ample parking and six miles of shoreline to go around, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area easily combines good shelling with convenience. Explore the northern region of the park near the monument to find shells that are hidden along the rocky borders, or head south where the beaches become less crowded and more isolated the further you go. Eventually, beach walkers will connect with Zeke’s Island Reserve, which is another paradise for shell seekers and is even more isolated.
Zeke’s Island Reserve – Take a kayak or a long stroll from the borders of Fort Fisher State Recreation Area to explore this 1,635 acre natural site that features wonderfully isolated beaches and ample shells. During a low tide, the ocean facing beaches can produce a wealth of finds, and the rare visitor may have “first dibbs” to a variety of shells along the local beaches and in the area tidal flats.
Shelling Tours and Cruises
Visitors who want to make the most out of a shelling expedition can book a shelling tour, water taxi, or cruise to access some of the best beaches that are sometimes out of reach for everyday visitors.
Local touring companies, like Island Hopper in Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach Shelling Tours which is located just a few miles, away can transport visitors to prime hunting grounds in Zeke’s Island and especially Masonboro Island – which is only accessible by a boat.
Tours can last anywhere from just a couple hours to a full day, and can be tailored to suit a party’s interests. Advanced reservations are recommended - especially in the prime summer season months – as shelling is an activity that is quickly growing in popularity along the Cape Fear coastline.
Types of Shells on Carolina Beach
Once a visitor lands on the beach, they’ll find that there are a wide variety of shells that can wash ashore in this corner of southern North Carolina. From the beautifully rare to the just plain beautiful, these are the shells you’ll want to watch out for when embarking on a Carolina Beach shelling adventure.
Scotch Bonnet – The Scotch Bonnet is the state shell of North Carolina, and is a surprisingly rare find that is prized by any beachcomber. Distinctive for its fat conical body, wide lip (or rim / opening), and its typically white and brown-specked exterior, the 1.5” – 5” Scotch Bonnet is always a keeper.
Whelks – Often mistaken for conchs, three varieties of whelks - (lightning, right knobbed, and channel) - can wash ashore along the area beaches, and especially along Mansonboro Island Coastal Estuarine Reserve during a low tide. These shell can range from 1-2” to up to 16” long, and are recognized for their ornate spiral shape, large lip / opening, and their myriad of colors.
Sand dollars – Though not technically a shell, sand dollars are prized finds along local beaches and can wash ashore intact – despite their delicate nature – due to the typically gentle ocean waves and wash. Look for white or tan varieties, as the brown / spiky sand dollars may be still alive and should be tossed back.
Olive Shells – These skinny conical shells are fairly common along the beaches, and are distinctive for their tight spiral top, their long and skinny opening, and their modest size – which is generally in the 1”-3” range.
Moon Snails – These fat conical shells have a perfect central spiral that gets larger until it reaches an equally circular opening. Also referred to as a “shark’s eye,” these shells can range from just ½’ wide to 4-5” wide or more.
Pen Shells – Delicate and beautiful upon closer inspection, the pen shell is a large bivalve shell that measures 5-10” long, and which is distinctive for its iridescent exterior which can exude a rainbow of colors in the light.
Scallops – Fairly common throughout Carolina Beach area and beyond, beachcombers should note that there are two type of scallops that regularly wash ashore on the local beaches – the Atlantic Bay Scallop and the Calico Scallop. Though similar, the Calico Scallop is often the more coveted of the two, as it’s flecked with pretty patches of rose, pink, and red. Use these striking shells for crafts, such as Christmas ornaments or shadow box displays.
Coquinas – Small and colorful, coquina clams are tiny 1” or less bivalve shells that literally come in a rainbow of pastel but brilliant colors. Look for them all along the beaches, and especially along the beach near the ocean wash where hundreds of live coquinas can make a sudden and breathtaking appearance.
Augers, oyster drillers, periwinkles, and more – A number of small “spiral” shells that are ornate in nature can wash ashore along the beaches, and are often found almost hidden in big piles of shells and other sediments. Measuring just 1-2” at most, these delicate shells are distinctive for their conical shapes and intricate forms.
Clams (like quahogs, arc clams, and jackknife clams) – A wide array of clams regularly wash ashore on the local beaches, and are arguably the most common finds in the Carolina Beach region. Look for big and heavy quahogs, which can measure up to 5-6”, as well as smaller and more delicate arc clams, and skinny and distinctive jackknife clams, which are all common, but are nevertheless attractive finds.
Tips and Ticks for Finding Shells on Carolina Beach
- Arrive early. The local shorelines can fill up quickly with seasonal visitors, and especially in the summer months. Being an “early bird” goes a long way in acquiring the best finds that may have washed up overnight.
- Try to coincide a visit with a low tide. In low lying Carolina Beach and adjacent areas / islands, a low tide is arguably the best time to find shells that have freshly washed ashore.
- Plan an off-season visit. The beaches are nicely deserted in the late fall, winter, and early spring months, so shell hunters can find a wealth of fantastic finds with little competition.
- Plan a post-hurricane visit. When a hurricane passes offshore, the storm often brings waves of great shells once the winds and waters have calmed down. Try to comb the beaches roughly 2-3 days after a hurricane for the best chance of finding some incredible (and rare) treasures.
- Keep your eyes peeled for sea glass. Bits of colorful sea glass can regularly wash ashore, and are often prized by beachcombers for their assortment of colors, and excellent use in crafts and jewelry projects.
- Mix up you shelling terrain. Shuffle your feet along the ocean floor on a crowded beach day, or head to the soundside to troll for sand dollars. There’s ample ways to go shell hunting in Carolina Beach, which can extend well past just a walk on the beach.
From intricate shelling tours of deserted islands, to leisurely beach strolls in your own neighborhood, shelling is always available – and always fun – for Carolina Beach visitors. Make the most out of your next vacation by embarking on a shelling adventure or two that the whole family will adore. As a reward for your efforts, you may go home with a few “free” souvenirs, courtesy of Mother Nature.