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Shelling on Marco Island, Florida

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Living in Chicago, the thought of any warm, Florida beach seems great, especially during the winter. However, our family’s most memorable Florida beach vacation was a visit to Marco Island, located off the Southwest coast of Florida.

What makes Marco Island special?

Along with its neighboring islands Sanibel and Captiva, Marco Island is considered of one of top U.S., if not world, destinations for shell collecting. These barrier islands have geography to thank for this honor and their good fortune. It is their ideal location in the Gulf of Mexico that makes them a giant depository of shells brought north by currents flowing all the way from the Caribbean.

While our family usually enjoys fairly active vacations (and Marco Island offers many other fun activities beside shelling), on this trip we were content to spend most of our time on the long stretch of beach off Collier Boulevard, enjoying the sun, sea and most of all, the seashells. And what seashells there are! We spent hours and hours walking the surf and collecting shells of the most amazing shapes, sizes and colors.

Collecting shells on Marco Island, Florida

Walking the surf, collecting shells on Marco Island.

Great learning opportunity for the whole family

Can you tell a gastropod from a bivalve shell? Or point out the alphabet cone? Not only did we leave the island with some truly beautiful sea treasures, but also as aspiring conchologists (those who study shells). Collecting shells was fun, but as a parent, I especially enjoyed how excited our two children were to learn about seashells, their names, eco systems, etc.

In preparation for our trip, we borrowed several books on this topic from our local library and we browsed the Internet to learn some useful tips on shell collecting (read on). Many hotels in the area also provide handy sheets describing some of the most popular shells. Some beaches, such as Tigertale Beach, showcase examples and information on the most commonly found shells in their area.

Sample of shells from Marco Island, Florida

A small sample of the beach treasures we found.

Perhaps the most important fact we learned was to always make sure that you don’t have live shells — defined as any specimen containing an inhabitant, whether or not the mollusk seems alive! Shells are a very important part of the island’s ecosystem and live shelling is prohibited by Florida law.

Check the tide, weather and the shell line

The hours immediately before and after low tide are the best for shelling, because more shells will be exposed. Many hotels, like Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort, provide tide charts or you can consult the local paper or the internet. Also, expert collectors know that the best shelling often happens after rain/storms push up shells onto the beach. This might be the only beach vacation when a day or two of rain is a blessing!

Another thing we learned from the friendly shelling experts we met on our beach is where exactly one should look for the best finds. We were told to focus on the “shell line,” an area where the highest waves stop as they break upon the beach. This is where the ocean deposits groups of shells and is the best spot to hunt for the most spectacular ones.

A few other helpful tips for a successful shelling trip

Acquire some buckets and nets

At the beginning of your trip, make a quick stop at a local grocery or a drug store and purchase some inexpensive plastic buckets and fishnets to help with your treasure hunt. They are too bulky to bring with you on the plane and will be much cheaper than those found in your hotel’s gift shop. At the end of your trip you can donate them to a family that has just arrived (which is what we did). You will also want to buy a bottle of bleach (read on).

Bring the right shoes

Make sure you have protective shoes for walking on the beach — those shells can be sharp as I quickly realized wearing my usual beach footwear, flip flops. You will especially want to make sure your child(ren)’s little feet are covered.

Don’t forget the bleach!

After collecting your sea treasures, I highly recommend cleaning them before heading back home to avoid a horrible smelling surprise as you unpack. (If you have ever done this, you know what I’m talking about!) After conducting thorough research online, I found several methods for cleaning, but many popular ones (freezing, boiling, microwaving) are not practical for those staying at a hotel.

The one that worked the best for us was to use a 50-50 bleach-water solution to kill any bacteria and parts of creatures that might still be present in the shells, even when they appear dead or “empty.” We used our hotel bathtub to soak them for a couple of hours and it worked great!

Cleaning the seashells in our hotel bath tub.

Cleaning the seashells in our hotel bath tub.

Pack Carefully

Be careful how you pack your shells, even if you plan to carry them on the airplane with you, as many, such as sand dollars, are very fragile. We had our share of broken pieces (and hearts) upon returning home, so take extra care when packing. Lots of padding and, if possible, wrapping them individually (at least the larger ones) is a good idea.

The Final Touch

Expert seashell collectors add one final touch, shining their finds (another tip we found online). Once home, lightly oil the shells using baby or mineral oil and a soft cloth before you proudly display your wonderful treasures.

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A native of Slovenia, Vera moved to the U.S. 20+ years ago after meeting her American husband. Together with their two children they live on the North…

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