“Gifts from the Sea”
Shell seekers find treasures to take home from Fort Myers
"The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”
~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh, “Gift from the Sea”
LEE COUNTY, FL – When Anne Morrow Lindbergh visited Captiva Island and penned her famous book, “Gift from the Sea,” in 1955, she wrote: “The beach was covered with beautiful shells and I could not let one go by unnoticed. I couldn’t even walk head up looking out to sea, for fear of missing something precious at my feet.”
It is much that way today as avid collectors come from all over the world comb The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in Southwest Florida to take advantage of the abundant treasures from the sea. A passion for shelling will soon turn into obsession as the success of a vacation is often judged by the number of shells collected!
And why not? Shelling is free. It requires only a mesh bag or a pocket and basic knowledge of how to do the “Sanibel Stoop.” And when visitors get their finds home, they become part of their interior decor.
Famous area beaches are some of the best for shelling
“Here on this island I have had space.” ~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh“Gift from the Sea”
With names such as angel wings, baby's ear, kitten's paw, alphabet cone, paper fig and worm shells, just to name a few, shelling is taken seriously here! With more than 100 barrier and coastal islands adjacent to the Lee County, Florida shoreline, this area is home to 50 miles of sandy-white beaches that offer the best shelling in the United States. Tourists and residents alike search the beaches for treasures. Some even set out with flashlights 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. Considered a “once in a lifetime” find, stumbling across a junonia may get your photo in the local Sanibel newspaper.
The ideal geography of the area has everything to do with its bounty of shells. Shells from the Caribbean eventually roll up the slightly sloping undersea shelf. The gentle waves keep a majority of shells intact. Make sure to step carefully. Under your feet could be the ultimate souvenir. Although hundreds of varieties of shells lie in the shallows or wash-up on The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel daily, 10 of these represent the crown jewel of shell collecting.
So many shells, so many questions.
Here are some of the most common:
“Where are the best shelling locations?
”Sanibel Island has been named the best shelling beach in the U. S. and for good reason. Even the land’s configuration encourages shelling with its boomerang or shrimp shape that slows down the shells and brings them onto the beach in one piece. While many islands face northwest, Sanibel runs in a more east-west direction, a distinct advantage and is exposed to winter fronts from the northwest. 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 pointand can be collected by wading or snorkeling along the surf line or sifting through the bounty of shells deposited by waves. By closely monitoring the feeding habits of shorebirds, one can locate many of the Gulf’s treasures.
More shelling locations: Shelling is actively pursued all along the Southwest Florida coastline. Lovers Key State Park is easily accessible and shells are plentiful. Shelling is especially good in less populated areas, like North Captiva and Cayo Costa islands, known for their starfish, conch and sand dollars. Both of these sparsely populated islands are accessible only by private boat or charter. For details on each of the area’s beaches visit www.fortmyers-sanibel.com/discover/on-water/beach/
Note: To get to some of the more isolated locations, many visitors seek the help of a shelling guide or charter captains. The area has many local experts with knowledge of the beaches and best shelling locations. Many local marinas and resorts run shelling charters. For a list of shelling charters and tours, visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.
When is the best time for shelling?
Avid shellers say that anytime is a good time for shelling, as one never knows what will wash ashore. The thrill of the search is part of the allure. Peak shelling season in the Fort Myers/Sanibel area is generally considered to be May through September where it is possible to find 50 to 60 different kinds on a given day. Typical winter cold fronts also produce great shelling on the southwest side of many barrier islands because changing tides and strong currents. For information on shelling area beaches visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.
Shell early morning.
Low tide is best.
Walk the shell line, just where the highest waves stop as they wash up onto the sand. This is where groups of shells arrive and are reshuffled by ongoing wave action. It saves digging. Another good spot is found 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.
Be patient! No one area is consistent 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 gifts from the sea.
Decorating your home with seashells
So you have found great shells on your vacation and managed to get them all home in one piece. What now? The ways of incorporating your shells into your home are endless. Here are a few suggestions:
- Design a picture frame with your favorite finds and insert a photo of a day spent at the beach. A nice vacation memory.
- Separate your shells by category or color and put them in ginger jars for a bathroom or kitchen. These also make great gifts when wrapped in ribbon or rope. Be creative!
- Arrange your collection in a large shell, bowl or on a shelf.
- Design a beautiful tablescape for a dining room or entry table. Incorporate a little sand on a tray and arrange your shells as though they just washed up on the beach. Sprinkle in blue and green sea glass to make it sparkle.
- Design a mantlescape. The focal point can be a favorite watercolor. Arrange larger shells and pieces of coral (purchased) and fill in the spaces with smaller beach finds. Sand dollars. Urchins. For the holidays, just add a few white lights and you have done your decorating for the season.
- And don't forget about a wreath. For indoors or outdoors. Buy a plain wreath and include your shells with pretty ribbon to match your decor or include raffia or netting.
- Cover an old claw-foot bathtub with shells. Be sure to use an adhesive that will stand up to moisture.
- Use your imagination and design a shell mirror with your shells. Purchase a few large shells to act as the focal point of the mirror.
- Frame a bathroom mirror with a row of shells on each side and a thick band of shells at the top. Flat molding is great for this purpose. When it comes to mirrors, your imagination knows no limit!
- Design a chair railing for your kitchen or dining room covered in shells.
- Find an old table or chest at a flea market and cover it with shells. Dramatic!
- Pick up an inexpensive chandelier or lamp at a home store and cover it with shells.
- Take an old pair of heels and attach shells. Great conversation piece!
- For entertaining, cover the center of the table with netting and sprinkle shells and sea glass around candles or lanterns.
- Arrange shells in shadow boxes and plan an arrangement over a sofa or entry table.
- For your garden, cover a birdbath with shells. Pretty and inexpensive!
- Need more ideas? Check out Shell: The Ultimate Guide to Decorating Your Home with Seashells by Marlene Hurley Marshall. The beautiful book has step-by-step instructions and photos for creating shell art for your home.
- For more tips and photos visit The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel Pinterest board at http://pinterest.com/ftmyerssanibel/she-shells-seashells/.
Tip: When using shells that were found on the beach, soak them in a resolution of half bleach, half water for several hours. For a natural luster, apply baby oil when they are clean and dry.
Before heading out on a quest for the perfect junonia shell, many shellers visit the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, which is in its 20th year of mounting exhibits and educating the public about mollusks and the hard exoskeletons they leave behind. With ties to the Smithsonian Institution, it is home to shells of southwest Florida and huge and rare specimens from around the world. The museum has the largest collection of shells in North America, including the intricate Sailor’s Valentines. A comprehensive Web-based system allows malacologists (zoologists who specialize in mollusks) the world over to access the museum's collection online. A learning lab offers a hands-on area for children and a gift shop filled with unique objects to take home. For details, visit www.shellmuseum.org or call 239-395-2233.
For craft supplies and to purchase the shells that you did not find on the beach, She Sells Sea Shells has two locations on Sanibel Island. These family-owned and operated shops since 1976, have their own line of shell craft ornaments, animals, novelties, and flowers. All of these unique creations are made locally from sea shells and sea life. Visit www.sanibelshellcrafts.com or 239-472-8080.
Shellers will want to visit the Shell Factory & Nature Park in North Fort Myers. A Southwest Florida institution, it is billed as the “world’s largest collection of rare shells, corals, sponges and fossils from the seven seas.” Part museum, part gift shop, part nature park, it is a great addition to a shelling vacation. Visit www.shellfactory.com or call 239-995-2141.
The Annual Sanibel Shell Fair & Show takes place on Sanibel Island in March, at the Sanibel Community House. Shelling enthusiasts gather each year for the shell fair that draws visitors from around the globe. One of the most unique events in the country, it began on a porch with just a few islanders and has evolved into today's fair that includes demonstrations, shell displays, crafts, prizes, food and entertainment.
Visit www.sanibelcommunityhouse.net/events. Call 239-472-2155.
Help preserve this natural resource
Lee County treasures this natural visitor attraction. Shell activists work to preserve this natural resource and protect live shells from being over-harvested and endangered. All live shelling throughout the Fort Myers and Sanibel area is banned. However, collecting of uninhabited shells, ones where the animals or mollusks are already dead or gone from the shell, is unlimited and encouraged.
For more information on shelling and planning a vacation to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, visit www.FortMyersSanibel.com.
Editor’s Note: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel in southwest Florida includes: Sanibel Island, Captiva Island, Fort Myers Beach, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Estero, Cape Coral, Pine Island, Boca Grande & Outer Islands, North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres. For media assistance on the destination, visit www.fortmyerssanibel.com/media.