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Seashell Hunting on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

alt="Dozens of seashells in various bright colors lay on top of one another on the beach"

Visitors who spend their summer vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina may come to the coast to enjoy the picturesque stretches of pristine shoreline, world-class watersports, first-class seafood and top-notch offshore fishing, but in addition to those popular attractions that draw visitors from hundreds of miles away, the wide, sandy beaches of the Tarheel State offer opportunities for another popular activity beloved by many who make the journey to the spot where the sand meets the sea: seashell hunting.

If you’re one of the many people who find themselves captivated by seashell hunting on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, check out the guide below to learn more about the types of seashells that are typically found on the Carolina coast and how to identify them.

THE MOST COMMON TYPES OF SEASHELLS FOUND ON THE OUTER BANKS OF NORTH CAROLINA

SCOTCH BONNET:

alt="This scotch bonnet is the state seashell of North Carolina and sometimes found on the Outer Banks"When it comes to seashell hunting on the Outer Banks, few finds are more highly prized by both novice and professional collectors alike than the scotch bonnet. Named for its characteristic pattern that resembles that of a Scottish tartan fabric, the scotch bonnet made its first appearance in scientific literature in 1778. In 1965, the North Carolina General Assembly designated the scotch bonnet as the official state shell at the urging of the North Carolina Shell Club. Despite its status as the state shell of North Carolina, the scotch bonnet is not necessarily found in abundance along the shoreline here, and it is actually considered to be quite a rare and treasured find.

alt="Portions of a live snail can be seen popping out of this scotch bonnet seashell crawling on the sand"Scotch bonnets are classified as gastropods, a large and diverse category of mollusks that comprises more than 62,000 different species. They are typically between 2 inches and 4 inches in length, and they range in color from white to cream with an overlaying tartan pattern in various hues of yellow, tan and brown.

Although scotch bonnets’ range extends as far south as Brazil, these mollusks are predominately found from North Carolina to Florida. The elusive creatures are most commonly found at depths of 50 feet to 150 feet and tend to prefer tropical water. This makes the Gulf Stream that runs along the coast of North Carolina—particularly the waters just off the coast of Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island—the perfect spot for scotch bonnets to call their home.

SCALLOP SHELLS:

alt="Scallop shells in bright hues of pink, orange, yellow and purple lay on a glass tabletop"Another shell whose invertebrate inhabitants prefer the temperate ocean waters off the coast of the Outer Banks is the scallop. More than 400 individual species of this bivalved mollusk are found in saltwater habitats all around the world. Two types in particular are frequently found on North Carolina’s beaches: the calico scallop and the bay scallop.

When you’re seashell hunting on the Outer Banks, you’ll likely find scallop shells in dozens of different colors. The most common hues range from black, white and gray to yellow, orange, pink and purple. In addition to coming in a plethora of colors, scallop shells are also found with several different patterns. The most coveted type of scallop shell among beachcombers and collectors is often this picture-perfect speckled variety.  

WHELK SHELLS:

alt="A conch shell lays in the sand as the sun rises over the ocean waves behind it"Often mistaken for a conch shell among those seashell hunting on the Outer Banks, whelk shells are found frequently on the shoreline of North Carolina’s barrier islands. Three unique varieties of whelk shells exist in the Atlantic Ocean: the lightning whelk, the knobbed whelk and the channeled whelk.

The 3 Types of Whelk Shells:

The lightning whelk shell is typically the largest of the three types. It features a series of spiny spirals around the circumference of its larger end, and has a left-sided opening. The knobbed whelk is essentially the mirror image of the lightning whelk. The only difference between the two is the fact that the knobbed whelk has a right-sided opening rather than an opening on the left. Unlike its lightning whelk and knobbed whelk counterparts, which feature spiny spirals on one end, the channeled whelk boasts a series of deep channels instead. These channels swirl to form the tip of the shell, thus giving the channeled whelk its name.

alt="Five whelk shells in hues of blue, gray and tan lay in a line on a North Carolina beach"
Photo: Coastal Review Online

Whelk shells vary significantly in size. The smallest whelks are often just 2 inches long, while the largest can exceed 14 inches in length. Whelk shells also vary greatly in color, ranging from black, gray and tan to bright shades of orange and pink. Like scallop shells, whelks can be found along the entire Outer Banks from Carova to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Despite their prevalence along the seashores of the Outer Banks, the majority of whelk shells that wash up onto the sand are cracked or broken, making finding one that is completely intact a true treasure.

COQUINA CLAMS:

alt="Coquina clam shells in a variety of bright colors are sprinkled on the wet sand of a beach"Scotch bonnets, scallops and whelks may be the most popular among people seashell hunting on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but some equally interesting varieties of shells are found much more easily and more much frequently on area beaches.

One such type of seashell you’ll likely encounter all over the barrier islands is the coquina clam. These wedge-shaped seashells are very small, and they typically only grow as large as 1 inch in length. Coquina clam shells come in a wide array of colors, including white, orange, yellow, purple, pink, blue and green. Some coquina clam shells are also characterized by various combinations of colors on one single shell. Coquina clams are tiny mollusks that are most often found at the water’s edge, particularly at periods of a low or receding tide, and stumbling upon a shell bed full of these fragile beauties is a serious sight to behold.

Where to Find Coquina Clam Shells:

If you’re seashell hunting on the Outer Banks and want to increase your chances of discovering dozens upon dozens of coquina clams in a seemingly endless assortment of colors, head to Coquina Beach in South Nags Head. This popular beach is named for the number of coquina shells that tend to wash up regularly on its pristine and undeveloped swath of shoreline.  

NOTE: To find out where some of the best places are for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, check out our blog here.

SEAGLASS HUNTING ON THE OUTER BANKS:

If seashell hunting tops the list of your favorite Outer Banks activities, you’ll likely find searching for seaglass here equally appealing! Check out our blog on searching for Outer Banks seaglass here.

 

The Top 5 Holiday Activities on the Outer Banks in 2019

‘Tis the season for spending quality time with family and friends and for seeking out one-of-a-kind holiday festivities—and there’s no better place to experience the most wonderful time of year than the Outer Banks of North Carolina. From wildlife festivals and holiday light displays to Christmas parades and historical celebrations, you’ll find something for everyone to enjoy on the barrier islands this year.

So if you’re looking for some of the best spots to soak up the holiday spirit as 2019 comes to a close, you’re in luck. Here are the top 5 Outer Banks holiday activities you simply can’t miss this holiday season!

1. Winter Lights at the Elizabethan Gardens

alt="Bright Christmas lights and nutcrackers decorate the entry gate during the Winter Lights at the Elizabethan Gardens"
Photo: Resort Realty

Few holiday activities on the Outer Banks are as festive and famous as the Winter Lights at the Elizabethan Gardens. Held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on select evenings from late November to mid-January each year, this must-attend event features spectacular displays of holiday lights upon the trees, bushes, plants and pathways that can be found within the 10-acre gardens situated on Roanoke Island.

In addition to the tens of thousands of lights that you’ll find strung along the hedges, wrapped around tree trunks and decking out the tips of virtually every branch, when you visit the Winter Lights at the Elizabethan Gardens this season you’ll also encounter an open-air fire on the Great Lawn, as well as a wide array of holiday displays ranging from candy canes and gingerbread houses to reindeer and nutcrackers all along the walkways.

Photo: OuterBanks.com

When you’re finished wandering through the enchanting winter wonderland and soaking up the holiday spirit, step inside the gatehouse and reception hall, where you’ll discover an assortment of festive trees that are fully decorated for the season, as well as a gift shop filled with a variety of unique items that will help you get a head start on your holiday shopping this year!

IF YOU GO:

Dates: Nov. 30, 2019 to Jan. 19, 2020 (open Tuesdays through Saturdays in December; open Fridays and Saturdays in January).
Time: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Phone: 252-473-3234
Price: Adults $11, youth (ages 6-17) $9, child (ages 5 and under) $6. Winter Lights season passes are $17 for adults, $14 for youth and $11 for a child.

*NOTE: The Winter Lights will be closed on Dec. 24, Dec. 25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. 

2. Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival

Photo: WingsOverWater.org

One of the most unique holiday activities on the Outer Banks is the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival. Originally founded in 1997 by former refuge manager Mike Bryant, Wings Over Water is an annual fundraising event that takes place throughout six different wildlife refuges across eastern North Carolina. Since its inception 22 years ago, the popular event—which is billed as being one of the premier wildlife festivals on the East Coast of the United States—has grown from offering only a handful of activities to providing more than 90 activities that range from birdwatching and paddling to photography and art and history programs.  

Although the main portion of the event is held in October due to the potential for milder fall weather, a second session of festivities that focuses primarily on birdwatching—known as the Wings Over Water Encore—is held in December each year, when colder, late-season weather offers participants the opportunity to spot larger flocks of migratory birds traveling south along the Atlantic Flyway.

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival is sponsored by the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support regional and national wildlife refuges. Funds raised during the 2019 Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival will be used for an important project taking place on Hatteras Island: raising the visitor center at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge by approximately 5 feet. Scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2020, the project is an effort to protect this spot where thousands of nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts gather each year until a brand-new facility can be constructed in a less-threatened location.  

For a full schedule of events and activities for the Wings Over Water Encore session, visit www.wingsoverwater.org.

IF YOU GO:

Dates: Dec. 6, 2019 to Dec. 8, 2019
Phone: 252-216-9464
Price: Varies per program/trip

3. The 116th Annual Celebration of the Wright Brothers’ First Flight

Photo courtesy of OuterBanks.org

To commemorate the 116th anniversary of the day in 1903 on which brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the world’s first powered flight, the First Flight Society will hold a celebratory event on Dec. 17, 2019. Each year, the First Flight Society honors an individual or group that—like the Wright brothers—has achieved a significant “first” in the field of aviation and then inducts the honoree into the Dr. Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine.

This year, the organization will honor retired United States Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen, a 99-year-old World War II veteran who became known as the “Candy Bomber” thanks to his humanitarian efforts during the Berlin Airlift. Col. Halvorsen will be honored as a representative of the crews that flew their planes throughout the duration of the mission, which took place from June 27, 1948, to May 12, 1949.

alt="United States Air Force Colonel Gail Halvorsen is wearing his USAF uniform"
Retired United States Air Force Col. Gail Halvorsen. Photo courtesy of the First Flight Society.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the completion of the famous humanitarian event that profoundly impacted the lives of thousands of people in West Berlin as more than 2.3 million tons of cargo were flown over and dropped into this Soviet-occupied zone in Germany whose roads and waterways had been blockaded by the Russians to prevent any food or supplies from reaching residents of the region, which the Soviet Union sought to take complete control of.   

In addition to an induction of Col. Halvorsen, the 116th Annual Celebration of the Wright Brothers’ First Flight will also feature a flyover and the display of a C-54 and a C-47 aircraft, courtesy of the Berlin Airlift Foundation. For a closer look at the First Flight Society’s upcoming celebration and the inspiring story of the man being honored, click here to check out our blog about Col. Halvorsen and the heartwarming efforts that earned him the nickname of the “Candy Bomber” during the Berlin Airlift 70 years ago.

IF YOU GO:

Dates: Dec. 17, 2019
Time: 8:30 a.m.
Location: Wright Brothers National Memorial, 1000 N. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948
Phone: 252-441-1903
Price: Park admission fee will be waived for this event.

4. The Manteo Christmas Tree Lighting & Parade

Photo: OuterBanksThisWeek.com

When it comes to holiday activities on the Outer Banks, one tradition you can’t miss this season is the annual Manteo Christmas Tree Lighting. Part of the Town of Manteo’s monthly First Friday events, this year’s Christmas tree lighting will be held at 6 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. The tree lighting will kick off an evening full of family-friendly activities that will all take place in the heart of this historic town on Roanoke Island.

Join Outer Banks residents and visitors as the town’s spectacular Christmas tree is lit for the first time this holiday season. Then enjoy a cup of hot cocoa as you stroll along the quaint streets of the downtown area visiting local shops and listening to the sounds of holiday music being sung by children of all ages.

Photo: OuterBanksThisWeek.com

Head back to the Manteo waterfront on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, to take part in another popular tradition: the town’s annual Christmas parade, which will begin at 10:30 a.m. In addition to the parade, a wide array of other fun and festive events will be offered throughout the day, including a variety of themed contests and Outer Banks holiday activities designed to provide fun for the entire family!   

IF YOU GO:

Date: Dec. 6, 2019 and Dec. 7, 2019
Time: 6 p.m. on Dec. 6 for the Christmas tree lighting. 10:30 a.m. on Dec. 7 for the Christmas parade
Phone: 252-473-2133
Location: 207 Queen Elizabeth Avenue, Manteo, NC 27954
Price: Free

 5. The Poulos Family’s Outer Banks Christmas House

The Outer Banks Christmas House. Photo: Pinterest.

Nowhere on the entire Outer Banks will you find a more spectacular display of holiday lights at a private residence than the one that the Poulos family has been showcasing all around their property in Kill Devil Hills for the past 38 years. Ann and Jim Poulos purchased their house on Ocean Acres Drive in 1981, and beginning that year the family started a tradition that would soon make visiting their home during the holiday season a can’t-miss experience for everyone on the Outer Banks.

Thanks to the tens of thousands of brightly colored lights that cover virtually every corner of the property—plus the dozens of decorative displays that are set up all around the expansive lawn and even line the rooftop—the Outer Banks Christmas House quickly became famous among vacationers and locals alike. As you approach the property you will be greeted by the sounds of popular Christmas tunes playing on a stereo system, setting the stage for a unique place to get into the spirit of the season.

Photo: Clip.CookDiary.net

The Poulos family begins setting up the first round of decorations each year as early as August, and it typically takes as long as 12 weeks to put the finishing touches on this one-of-a-kind winter wonderland. The family’s intense efforts to transform their property into an experience that ranks as one of the top holiday activities on the Outer Banks has definitely paid off in the past. In fact, their home has been featured on HGTV, and it also earned the title of “Best Decorated House in America” by the Today show back in 2005.

When you’re in the mood to start taking in all of the festive scenes that the barrier islands of North Carolina have to offer this holiday season, make sure the Outer Banks Christmas House is at the top of your list! For more information about the Poulos Family’s Outer Banks Christmas House, click here to check out our featured blog from December 2018.

IF YOU GO:

Dates: Nov. 28, 2019 to Dec. 31, 2019 (nightly) 
Location: 622 Ocean Acres Drive, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948

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