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Where to Search for Seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Where to Search for Seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

alt="Brightly colored seashells, starfish and scallops lay on a wooden tabletop"If seashell hunting ranks at the top of the list of your favorite things to do on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chances are you’re already well-aware that this particular stretch of barrier island paradise is one of the best places in the world to stroll along the shoreline looking for hidden treasures.

It’s definitely possible to stumble across some rare finds on the beach right outside your quaint cottage or hotel room. However, if you’re hoping to find an unusual variety of seashell—or even a couple pieces of seaglass—you might have to venture a little farther from your cozy accommodations and scope out the spots that offer some of the best opportunities for seashell hunting on the entire East Coast of the United States.

Whether you’re planning your next vacation to the beach or you’re already on the islands and ready to get outside and start searching, check out our list of the top places for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks below before you go!

OCRACOKE ISLAND:

alt="Ocracoke Island is a prime spot for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks"
Photo: Our State Magazine

Few places on the Outer Banks are better spots for finding a plethora of unique seashells than along the shoreline of Ocracoke Island. Accessible only by ferry, private boat or private plane, Ocracoke Island is situated at the southernmost portion of the Outer Banks, bordered by the Pamlico Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. This tiny island—which is home to a population of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents—comprises only 8.6 square miles of land but boasts 16 miles of pristine and undeveloped beaches. In fact, Ocracoke Island was recognized by Dr. Beach as the No. 2 beach in the United States in 2019 and has repeatedly received similar honors by Coastal Living Magazine, being recognized as one of the “Best Beaches in the USA” and “Best Beach Towns in North Carolina” in the past several years.

alt="A scotch bonnet seashell lays on a wooden deck"
Scotch Bonnet

Thanks to its prime location off the beaten path and its positioning just south of the spot where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current converge at Cape Point on nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island is the perfect spot to find an abundance of rare seashells—including the elusive scotch bonnet. This hard-to-find shell was officially named the state shell of North Carolina in 1965; however, even the most dedicated beachcombers and experienced seashell collectors have struggled with successfully finding one completely intact along the beaches of the Outer Banks. In addition to scotch bonnets, visitors who search for seashells on Ocracoke Island will also find an assortment of other interesting finds ranging from scallops, sand dollars, periwinkles and coquina clam shells to olive shells, whelks and queen helmet conchs.  

PEA ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE:

alt="Hundreds of seashells are strewn on this Outer Banks beach on Hatteras Island"
Photo: Fine Art America

When it comes to searching for seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one particular spot that consistently delivers a wide array of stunning and rare varieties is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located just south of Oregon Inlet on the northernmost tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is 13 miles long and covers nearly 6,000 acres of land and more than 25,000 acres of water. Like its Ocracoke Island counterpart, which sits a few miles off the coast of the opposite end of Hatteras Island, this uninhabited stretch of sandbar is a beachcomber’s dream come true.

alt="Seashell hunting on the Outer Banks also provides beachcombers the chance to find seaglass such as these bright pieces"
Photo: Carolina Designs Realty

In addition to serving as a sanctuary for 400 different species of wildlife ranging from dolphins and sea turtles to migratory birds, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge offers wide expanses of open shoreline just waiting to be explored by visitors who are searching for the perfect shell to add to their collection. Here you’ll likely find an assortment of colorful scallop shells, clams, whelks and moon snails. And if you’re truly lucky, you just might stumble upon a piece or two of Outer Banks seaglass because this sliver of secluded shoreline is a hot spot for these hidden gems! For more information about Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, check out our detailed blog here.

COQUINA BEACH:

alt="Coquina Beach is an excellent place for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks as seen here with hundreds of shells in the foreground"If you’re visiting the northern beaches of the Outer Banks and a trip to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Ocracoke Island is a bit too far to travel for an afternoon of seashell hunting, simply head down to South Nags Head and take a stroll along Coquina Beach to search for the perfect find.

Coquina Beach is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and it is conveniently located directly across N.C. Highway 12 from the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Milepost 22. This popular Outer Banks beach access offers both a bathhouse and plenty of parking spaces. Coquina Beach is just a short drive from the bustling beach towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head to the north, but it boasts seemingly endless stretches of undeveloped beaches and windswept sand dunes. This makes it the perfect place to spend your day searching for seashells without a lot of competition from other shell collectors.

alt="Numerous coquina clam shells of various colors lay on the wet sand"

What is a Coquina Clam?

Coquina Beach is aptly named after the coquina clam, whose shells are found in abundance along this particular piece of shoreline. This is especially true during the warm spring and summer months, when coquina clams are the most active. The wedge-shaped shells of these bivalve mollusks are small, ranging in size from about 1 centimeter to 1 inch in length. They also come in a rainbow of colors ranging from yellow, white and pink to purple, blue and orange.

Visit Coquina Beach in the spring and summer and you’ll likely witness live coquina clams quickly burrowing back down into the sand along the water’s edge after they are uncovered by the waves washing up along the shoreline. Coquina Beach may be best-known for the number of coquina clams that call this spot home; however, beachcombers will also find a variety of additional seashell varieties here. Keep an eye out for whelks, scallops and moon snails—as well as a plethora of driftwood and the occasional shard of Outer Banks seaglass!

TIPS & TRICKS FOR FINDING SEASHELLS:

  • Seashell hunting on the Outer Banks is typically the best in the morning hours (ideally just prior to or during sunrise). Getting to the shoreline before other beachcombers collect the most highly prized finds is key!

 

  • Scope out the beach during or just after a storm or period of rough surf. Intense wave action can stir up shells that are normally nestled along the seafloor or buried beneath the sand and deposit them onto the shoreline.

 

  • Hit the water’s edge as the tide is going out or when the tide is at its absolute lowest for the day. A receding tide reveals an abundance of shell beds that are normally covered by the ocean waves. These are often the best spots to discover hard-to-find treasures, particularly pieces of seaglass!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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