Hunting for Shells on Sanibel Island

Visiting the shelling capital of the world with kids

Are you the kind of person who gets a little bored just sitting on the beach?  Do you also not really love swimming in the ocean for hours on end (but your kids do)?  Have I ever got the family beach vacation for you: a week on Sanibel Island.

Things to do on vacation on Sanibel Island.
Shelling at dark o’clock in the morning. We went in the middle of the night with headlamps too. I wish I were kidding.

Low-key Sanibel Island is the shelling capital of the world.  Believe it or not, people travel here from all over the world just to go beach combing — it’s that good.  Even better, you can bring the whole family.  The island is half wildlife sanctuary (birds, snakes, turtles, and alligators) and criss-crossed by wonderful bike paths that are totally separate from the road.

You won’t find any 5-star resorts, but you will find laid back luxury, warm water, white sand, and shelling so good it’ll have you planning your return trip within minutes of stepping on the beach.

Why so many darn shells?

Sanibel is a barrier island shaped kind of like a banana.  The coastline runs west to east (rather than north to south), and sticking out into the Atlantic like it does, it catches shells from the Caribbean.  Lots of shells, over 300 species, in fact.  Especially after storms and extreme tides.  And they are very, very easy to find too.  No scuba diving, no long boat rides, just take a walk on the beach.

Things to do on vacation on Sanibel Island.
I found these beauties in 30 seconds on a single sandbar.

How to strike it rich

First, pay attention to the tide charts.  Ideal times to go are from one hour before to one hour after low tide.  The wonderful website, I Love Shelling, is a great place to get real-time information on conditions (as well as a glimpse into the weird and wonderful world of shelling).  Before you know it, you’ll be on a personal quest for some of the rarest finds!

While many of the big conchs and whelks can be found at the water’s edge, I personally had the best time sitting in a shell mound browsing for miniature shells (which are easier to bring home too).

Things to do on vacation on Sanibel Island.
If you see a shell mound, sit down and enjoy sifting through it.

Also, remember the rules: Florida law prohibits the collection of live seashells.  It almost killed me to throw back the perfect, shiny olive I found complete with a snail-y creature inside, but it was the right thing to do.

If you have a borderline obsessive personality (ahem), you may find yourself shelling for up to 7 hours a day — it’s honestly that fun.  This takes an incredible toll on your neck, back, and thighs, so bring plenty of ibuprofen.

Things to do on vacation on Sanibel Island.
You know how I got this awesome picture? I yelled, “Boo!”

If you go

Depending on where you’re coming from, you can either fly into Miami, rent a car, and drive three hours across a region called “Alligator Alley” (we elected not to do this, since we landed at night) or fly into Ft. Myers, rent a car, and drive 50 minutes to the island.  Yes, you will need a car, even if you decide to get around the island mostly by bike.

Sanibel is low-key and family-friendly.  What it lacks in 5-star resorts and Michelin-rated restaurants, it more than makes up for in beaches, bike paths, birds, and warm water.

After much research, we opted to stay at the Island Inn.  We loved the beachfront location, access to bike paths, and kitchen (so we could save some time on money by not dining out every meal).

Things to do on vacation on Sanibel Island.
This is only one small part of my haul. I’m totally going back.

Although I was accommodated with a media rate on my trip, the Island Inn did not request that I express any particular point of view.  All opinions are my own.




  1. says

    My inlaws live near Sanibel and have a ton of ideas on things you can make with shells. Shell people, shell clocks. For those that don’t want to fly into Miami or Ft. Myers, Tampa is just as far as Miami, but the drive down is much more scenic. I’d avoid alligator alley, too. Boring.

    There’s a shell outlet store near Ft. Myers, but I think it’s probably best to pay the toll to cross the bridge and find your own shells.

  2. says

    Jamie, You found some great shells and maybe a dried puffer fish (I cant see it too well, but I’m thinking it looks like the shape?)The treasures are really amazing, arent they? I just wanted to say “hi” and thank you for the link to my blog. So sweet!

  3. says

    Hi Pam! Totally love your blog — thanks so much for visiting back. I am plotting ways to return to Sanibel even as I type this.

    If you had to recommend only ONE month to visit (just for shelling, not for other beach-y stuff), what would it be?

  4. says

    The winter months like February and March have been typically said to be the best shelling months because of the cold north west winds pushing the deep water shells (like the Junonia and other highly sought after shells) onto our shores on the low tide mornings… and that does happen a lot of years so they are very good months to shell. But then I’m not your typical sheller that likes to be the first one on the beach to get the best shells at low tide. If I have to recommend my favorite month to shell, I happen to prefer shelling the low tides in the warm late afternoons in June… or August. The cool breeze off the water makes it the perfect temp. Being on the beach in the late afternoon/early evening on a low tide is my all time favorite thing to do. Most days you can find lots empty shells and you can also see live mollusks and their tracks and trails. The birds are singing and the dolphins swim right next to you. I know you wanted best month for just shelling but it all goes hand and hand for me! Oh yeah, and the summer months are when we get the storms too! After a summer storm… it’s like fairy tale shelling. You just cant plan when a storm coming from the west will hit. I hope this helps a little- Its a hard question! Nice to chat with you- lemme know if plan another trip! pam

  5. Tamara says

    I am planning to visit Sanibel Island soon. Any info on a nice, (ly) priced place to stay I have 3 children…19,14,11 we love the beach but most of all I love SHELLING!!! Any information would be appreciated. Thank you.

  6. says

    Sanibel is one of my favorite places of all times! I love the shelling, and the entire atmosphere :) Beautiful pictures, you found a lot of great shells.

  7. Debe says

    Hello! I am planning a trip in March (21st-25th), 2017. I will be staying with friends in Everglades City. Do you have any tips for me for that time of the year? Thank you so much!!


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