Guide to Shelling in the Outer Banks

The secret is out, and beachcombers near and far are taking notice – the Outer Banks are a treasure trove for seashell hunters. While the region has plenty to offer in terms of beach appeal, shelling is a popular pastime that most beachgoers will explore to some extent. A successful hunt can yield beautiful finds – but only if you know where to look, and how to find the treasures buried in the sands of the best beaches on the Carolina coast.

Finding Seashells In The Outer Banks

Some of the best shelling along the East Coast can be found on the barrier islands that run along North Carolina’s Atlantic shores. The islands form their own unique communities, defined by the shifts in both the Gulf Stream and Labrador currents that influence the area. This makes for a range of unique conditions, resulting in diverse habitats and oceanic deposits.

Beaches located along sounds and inlets are known to be worth a beachcombing mission. The shallow waters of the sound beaches are prime for the more motivated shellers who don’t mind putting a little effort into their process.

While many novice shell-seekers may choose to visually skim the seemingly skimpy shores, a simple peek beneath the surface of the sand will reveal much more than expected. Submerged seashells are typically easy to reveal with a scoop into the shoreline. The rushing, deep waters of the Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke inlets result in plentiful shell deposits along their borders as well – especially when the tides are working in your favor.

For the casual shell hunter, a simple search around the base of any Outer Banks pier is likely to make sure you don’t leave entirely empty-handed, but if you want to find the really impressive hauls, make sure to visit the best shelling beaches in the Outer Banks.


Photo Credit: Mike+Tiffy via Flickr CC2.0

The 4WD beaches of Carova may be challenging to access, but if you have the means to get there, you’ll find that limited access to be a distinct advantage in your shelling game. Competition will be low for the shells along the miles of undeveloped Carova beaches, where shallow, gradually sloping ocean floors make for a delightfully shell-wealthy shoreline, especially during the off-season.

  • Most Common Finds: augers, olive shells

Coquina Beach

Coquina Beach comes by its name honestly. Located just to the south of Nags Head, this is another beach with limited crowds due to its 4WD accessibility. However, your successful navigation to the beach yields fabulous rewards, as the wide open shorelines reveal thousands of colorful coquina clam shells. During the summer months, visitors can find swarms of live coquinas making their way from the waters to burrow into the sand.

  • Most Common Finds: coquinas

South Beach

Located beside Cape Point in the community of Buxton, you’ll find South Beach. Aptly-named for its directional advantage. Another geographical benefit to South Beach is its location at the intersection of the Labrador and Gulf Stream currents, producing some of the best shell habitats in the region. Anytime is a great time for shelling at South Beach, but winter will find the area to be practically deserted, and ripe for the picking.

  • Most Common Finds: helmet conchs, whelks, Scotch bonnets

Ocracoke Island

Photo Credit: Jim Dollar via Flickr CC2.0

It may be a little bit of a drive, but Ocracoke Island is a destination worth the effort if you’d like to try your luck at one of Travel + Leisure’s 10 Best U.S. Shelling Beaches and Coastal Living Magazine’s 2nd Best Shelling Beach in the Country. The remote nature of Ocracoke, and its miles of optimal shoreline draw the most diverse and plentiful seashell treasures, and fewer shellers seeking them out – especially when tourist populations are at their lowest.

  • Most Common Finds: Scotch bonnets, whelks, olive shells, sand dollars, conch

Portsmouth Island

At the southern edge of the Outer Banks, just beyond Ocracoke, you’ll discover the shell-abundant shores of Portsmouth Island, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Home to visiting fishermen, Portsmouth Island is every bit as fruitful as Ocracoke, but a bit more remote – as only the most ambitious beachcombers seem to be aware of its yield. Pair your Ocracoke visit with a tour of Portsmouth Island and the surrounding village for an extremely rewarding and unique excursion!

  • Most Common Finds: whelks, Scotch bonnets, sand dollars, helmet conch

Shell Hunting Tips

  • Dig a little deeper! Not all shells are resting on the surface of the sand. Scoop into the sand, step just beyond the shoreline (1’-2’ into the water is a great spot), and even look in beds of seaweed for hidden gems!
  • The north-facing beaches above Cape Point tend to draw cold-water shells from the New England area. South facing beaches beyond Hatteras Island pull warm-water shells from as far south as Florida.
  • If the opportunity arises, a great time for prime shelling is about a day after a storm passes through.
  • Shelling is at its peak just after a low tide, when a fresh crop of shells have washed ashore, but the high tide has yet to usher them back out to say.
  • Get a beach driving permit and access to a 4WD for “drive-by shelling” along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore – and access to Carova and Coquina beaches.
  • Accommodations right on the beach provide you with round-the-clock access to your picking grounds. Even if your beach isn’t listed above, you’re sure to have a worthwhile crop at any of the Outer Banks beaches.

Shelling is easily one of the most popular beach pastimes, especially on the Outer Banks. It’s a natural activity that the whole family can enjoy for free, with beautifully pure rewards. Regardless of what treasures you unearth, a shelling adventure in the Outer Banks is sure to provide you with a bevy of seashells perfect for craft projects, home decor, or simple mementos of your best vacation ever.

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