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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.