What the Shell? Florida Shelling Tips and Regulations

florida sea shellsI have always loved shelling. From the time I was a little girl, my family would rent a vacation house on Anna Maria Island (back when you could rent a Gulf-front cottage for only $500 a month!) and shelling was the main event. You would generally find my me, my mom and grandmother out on the beach, not sunning ourselves, but crouched down or leaning over in the “shelling stoop” looking for the perfect Olive or Shark’s Eye.  When you’re a kid, there’s something magical about finding a shell that is in the shape of angel wings (Coquinas) or Donald Duck’s foot (Kitten’s Paw). Now, I still love going to the beach and searching with my daughter, Olive, for Lettered Olives – a favorite shell of mine (which is probably obvious since my daughter’s name is Olive). Olive shells have been pummeled and polished by the ocean’s floor, leaving their exterior is shiny and smooth – to me, they are pure perfection! I am also fascinated that little mollusks can grow these intricate and dazzling exoskeletons – truly amazing. When an animal is inside a shell, they are in fact, fascinating to watch. Watching a Fighting Conch do the locomotion across the ocean floor is truly a wonder of nature not to be missed!
Loving these shells and creatures as I do, I am a collector of shells that have been vacated and washed up on shore, but never of shells containing live animals.  Many people don’t realize that an actual animal may be inhabiting the beautiful shell you so want to have in your collection. It does bother me when I see people collecting a bucket-full of sand dollars from a sandbar. These are living organisms! Visitors to the area (and even locals) are not always aware that there are actual rules that regulate shelling and shell collecting. In Manatee County, the Recreational Sea Shell Collecting Law states that you are allowed to collect two shells with living organisms, but we like to throw back anything that’s still alive (unless it’s for consumption, like a scallop or oyster). So if you are collecting shells on Anna Maria Island or North Longboat Key, make sure you know the rules and when you find a shell that has a living little guy inside, don’t be tacky, throw him back-y. Also remember, if you are at a county preserve or state or national park (like Egmont Key) collecting is not allowed. That’s when you take only pictures and leave only footprints!
So when collecting the shells (without the live, little critters), here are some tips that you will make you the best beachcomber on Anna Maria Island. Your shell bag will be bursting with treasures!

Florida Shelling Tips

Shelling Tip #1: Go Low.
A great time to shell is just before low tide. Make sure to check the tide charts. When the tide goes out, fresh ocean bottom is revealed with new shells!
Shelling Tip #2: Early Bird Gets the Shell.
Get up early and get out on the beach! Beat out everyone else and get the good shells before they do.  Most serious shellers will be there just as the sun is rising, so you better set your alarm!
Shelling Tip #3: Stormy Weather.
Go shelling after the storm. Many shells are tossed in and pushed forward during a large storm, so be one of the first to check the beach after the storm subsides.
Shelling Tip #4: Don’t be Tacky, Throw it Back-y.
Don’t harvest anything with a living organism.  If you find one with a live animal inside, toss it back out to the ocean and feel good you saved a little critter and you’ll help continue the life cycle so generations from now can also enjoy shell collecting!