Sanibel Island, Florida (1 of 2 – Sea shells galore)

I have a love affair with islands.  Something about being on a piece of land disconnected from the hustle of everyday American life just appeals to me somewhere deep down inside.  The sea breeze from the beaches, abundant wild life and beautiful landscapes makes them truly feel like an escape.
When the chance came to take an extended weekend vacation this Spring, I immediately knew where I wanted to go; Sanibel Island, FL.

I’d first heard about Sanibel Island from a blog I began to follow in Spring 2012 when I visited the beaches of Cameron Parish, Louisiana and needed a resource to identify the shells I had found.  I found to be a valuable resource for shell identification.  More than that, I found a passionate blogger that had a large community and extended following.  After reading the almost weekly updates over the course of a year, I knew I had to see this place.

Sanibel Island is a barrier island in Southwestern Florida about 2.5 hours south of Tampa on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and is one of the last barrier islands to the south west coast of Florida you can reach before hitting the Everglades.  One of the unique features of Sanibel Island, as opposed to other western Florida barrier islands is the island’s west to east orientation while most islands are north to south oriented.  It is said, because of this, that Sanibel Island has the most variety of sea shells of any other Florida beaches making it the #1 shelling site in the Western World.


So, my wife and I flew into Tampa from New Orleans and made the drive down to Sanibel Island.  We chose a place on the beach called Mitchell’s Sand Castles and stayed in the Coquina cabin a mere 200 ft off the beach.  We chose this location because of the nice centralized location on the island and because the cabins have kitchens and although the island has many fine restaurants, nothing quite compares to cooking bacon and french toast every morning.

On our first evening here, we learned that shelling, like mother nature, is extremely fickle. If the tide is in, the shells and beaches are nearly nonexistent, when it goes out, the shelling bonanza has begun.  We were lucky enough to arrive at a low tide and the beaches were littered with heaps of shells that follow deposition along the intertidal lines.  For the best shelling, you should probably check the tides.  Basically, if you see a big heap of shells in a line, go for it.

The first thing you notice on this beach is that just about everyone is knelt down or sitting looking at shell piles.  This is so common that it has a local name called the “Sanibel Stoop”.  We started digging in the shell beds and came up with quite a few treasures but quickly realized that most of the shells were quickly passed over as “seen it”, “seen it”, “seen it”.  It wasn’t until we started trying to collect one of each shell type that we quickly realized just what a variety there was.

The next morning, we headed north off of Sanibel Island to Captiva Island where we had signed on to a shelling cruise tour led by Pam of Iloveshelling.  The cruise left Captiva Island and headed north for Cayo Costa.

The southern tip of Cayo Costa borders North Captiva Island (which is occupied but only accessible by boat or plane) between the Gulf of Mexico and Pine Island Sound.  We arrived by boat on the Sound side of the island.  There were a handful of fishermen and other recreational boaters/campers on the island but we were by far the largest group.  The southern tip of the island was landscaped with dead trees that the sea had long since claimed.  Unfortunately, the shelling on the gulf side was all but nonexistent on this day but the shells on the Sound side were great.  I waded just off-shore until I felt a drop off with a large amount of shells and would scoop them into my bag and haul them to shore to look for treasures.  More experienced shellers carried mesh or wire baskets mounted on poles to sort through off-shore shells.

The off-shore shells were where the magic happened.  We brought in beautiful conchs and lightning whelks and olives.  The on-shore shells mostly contained cockles, coquinas and scallops.  Many of the off-shore shells found on the sound side were occupied by living creatures which means you should NOT collect them.  Here’s an example of a huge live lightning whelk found by one sheller.

After the tour, we ventured to Blind Pass, the small pass between Captiva and Sanibel.  Parking was $2/hr and it was a very popular beach for everyday beach goers, fishermen and shellers.  The tide was coming in hard and fast through the narrow pass but it was still low enough to reveal huge, deep shell piles under the bridge (for shady shelling) and in the pass itself.

Our last shelling stop was the Sanibel Lighthouse, located on the most south eastern tip of the island.  The lighthouse was a simple one, but the beaches here amazed me.  The diversity of shells was staggering.  The water on the gulf side was very turbid, but all one needed to do was walk out a few feet, grab a handful of shells and sand and walk to the beach and nearly every handful held a treasure.  The Sound side of the lighthouse was also crystal clear and excellent for swimming in calm clear water.

All in all, I think I had a great shelling experience in Sanibel.  Tonight is our last night on the island and we spent part of the afternoon arranging our prize finds and photographing them.  I tried my best at identifying the shells, so please correct me if I’m wrong.  The gallery is linked below.

Next week:  Part 2 of 2 concludes with birding, the wildlife refuge and island ecology!