More than 100 barrier and coastal islands snuggle up to the Lee County, Florida shoreline, home to 50 miles
of sandy white beaches that shelter some of the best shelling in the United States.
Tourists and residents alike search the beaches for Neptune's treasures.
Some don miner's hats with lights, arising before sunrise to find the best specimens washed ashore.
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel yields some 400 species of multi-colored seashells, from
the commonplace scallop and clam to the exotic tulips, olives, fragile paper fig shells and
the rarest of them all, the brown speckled junonia
Prime examples of these, and thousands more, are exhibited at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum
on Sanibel Island, the only shell museum in North America, where experts answer questions about
rare shells from around the world.
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel is one of the few places in the world where a person
can make a living as a shelling charter captain.
Many local marinas and resorts run shelling charters.
"Peak shelling season in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area is May through September," says one
such entrepreneur, Mike Fuery, a fishing and shelling charter captain on Captiva Island.
For years, he has guided shelling enthusiasts to promising beaches and sandbars like Johnson Shoals off
the coast of Cayo Costa State Island Preserve. "It's possible to find 50 to 60 different kinds here
on a given day."
Fuery explains that no offshore reef breaks up the delicate shells.
Instead, the Gulf of Mexico is one flat, shallow trough with lots of warm and sunny weather encouraging
shells to grow.
Sanibel Island is widely celebrated for its shelling potential.
Even the island's configuration encourages shelling. "Sanibel's boomerang, or shrimp shape, slows down
the shells and brings them onto the beach in one piece," says Fuery.
While many islands face northwest, Sanibel runs in a more east-west direction.
Often, seashells left behind by sea creatures hide just beneath the surface of the sand where the surf breaks.
Many empty shells never make it over this point and can be collected by wading or snorkeling along
the surf line or sifting through the bounty of shells regularly deposited by waves.
By closely monitoring the feeding habits of shorebirds like terns, one can locate many of the Gulf's treasures.
A wide plateau of relatively shallow water and sandy bottom adjoins Sanibel on the south side of
the island, according to Winston Williams, author of "Florida's Fabulous Seashells."
"This gradual slope of the Gulf of Mexico bottom acts like a ramp where large numbers of shells roll onto
the beach, especially when driven by storms from the northwest," says Williams.
Such storms are common in December and January when cold fronts pass through Florida.
He notes that the gentle slope assures that even more shells arrive in undamaged condition.
Shelling is actively pursued all along the southwest Florida coastline.
It is especially good in less populated areas, like North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands, known for
their starfish, conch and sand dollars. On his charter, Fuery walks the beach pointing out good finds.
"Typical winter cold fronts produce great shelling on the southwest side of many barrier islands," he says.
Changing tides, strong currents and prime weather conditions constantly change island formations.
Fuery is excited by a brand new island formed off North Captiva, one primed to provide fun and challenging
"Miniature sand dollars, olives, nauticas and small whelks are particularly bountiful out here," he says.
Lee County treasures this natural visitor attraction.
Shell activists naturally seek to preserve this stellar natural resource and protect live shells from
being over-harvested and endangered.
By signature of the late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, the City of Sanibel Island banned all live shelling
as of Jan. 1, 1995.
As of March 2002, the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, at the request of
the Lee County's Board of County Commissioners, also banned all live shelling throughout
the Fort Myers/Sanibel area.
However, collection of uninhabited shells, ones where the animals or mollusks are already dead or gone
from the shell, is unlimited and encouraged.
Fuery strongly supports Lee County's resolution and shows his charter customers how to avoid picking up
large, live shells.
"Those of us who truly love shelling can't tolerate the killing of live shells," he writes
in "Captain Fuery's Shelling Guide."
Considering that it requires 10 to 12 years for a shell to mature in southwest Florida's sub-tropical
climate, residents see no reason to deplete the live shell supply.
Smaller, dead shells are equally vivid in color and make good collector's items.
"What makes a shell valuable is not how much it costs in a gift shop, but how difficult it is to find,"
His guidebook gives informal and amusing descriptions of available shells on the barrier islands
along with helpful tips for collecting.
A tide chart remains every shell seeker's primary tool.
Those "in the know" shell around the low phase of the tide, when greater beach area is exposed.
They start to scan less populated beaches an hour before low tide and work until an hour past
the lowest tide point.
Where is the best place to walk on the beach? One of Fuery's favorite spots is the shell line,
just where the highest waves stop as they shush up onto the sand.
This is where groups of shells arrive and are reshuffled by ongoing wave action.
It saves digging.
Another good spot for great shells is at the slight drop in the surf line, just where gentle waves
break before rolling onto the beach.
While this area is accessible only when weather permits, it usually holds the most and finest specimens.
Above all, shelling requires patience. No one area is good all the time and no collection worth viewing
was ever found on one outing.
Yet there is something innately appealing about shelling that keeps most people coming back time
after time, year after year. Morning, evening or midday, shell seekers throughout the islands and
mainland coasts of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel assume the famous "Sanibel Stoop"
or "Captiva Crouch," position to gather ever more gifts from the sea.
Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum