Notes for Newcomers: The Magic of Sea Shells

By Phil La Borie

Notes for Newcomers: The Magic of Sea Shells

I think there’s something very magical and mysterious about sea shells. How did they come to be? How old are they? Where did they come from and how long did it take them to arrive here on the Grand Strand beaches? They’re just so nifty; it’s almost as if they are gifts from King Neptune himself.

I can just imagine the gigantic gent wearing his crown at a rakish angle and holding his famous trident. His long flowing locks are gracefully fanning out behind him and his tree trunk-sized legs are firmly planted on the ocean floor. Of course he’s surrounded by a bevy of attractive mermaids and mermen who lovingly attend him as he sends millions of the little sea treasures out to charm the world.

And who can resist the excitement of walking along a beach, eyes glued to the sand in search of them? It’s no secret that shelling along the Grand Strand and environs is a huge, year-round attraction for visitors and local residents alike.

My favorite shell happens to be the Lettered Olive. And while it is the official shell of South Carolina, and appears here in abundance, I prefer it because I happen to be extraordinarily fond of olives and also because I think it has such a perfect shape. Our esteemed Sasee editor Leslie Moore favors the Imperial Venus Clam for reasons of her own, but with an estimated 700 sea shell species to choose from in South Carolina alone, I’m confident you can find one that you’ll count among your favorite treasures.

The big obstacle of course is finding one or more of these little beauties in perfect condition. Disappointments abound. How many times have you found promising discoveries that have turned out to be just fragments, or are missing significant pieces or even uncovering one whose owner is still in residence?

So, some thoughts on how and where to look for good specimens.

First of all, the best shelling occurs at the first low tide in the morning. In fact, I was out at dead low tide on Garden City beach a few weeks ago and came across so many shells that even the fastest computer in the world would have a problem counting them all!

You can easily find tidal times, surf conditions and a whole lot of other useful information at local Chamber of Commerce websites, from North Myrtle Beach to Georgetown.

If you’re looking for large shells, you’re most likely to find them at the water’s edge. And, if you get the opportunity to go shelling right after a big storm, King Neptune almost always serves up goodies in a big way.

But before you head out, a few words of advice:

Sunscreen: I don’t want to sound like your mother, but trust me, appropriate amounts of sunscreen during the season and bug spray in the fall (the sand fleas can be a real nuisance) are essential. A liberal application of both potions will ensure that both you and the kids have a great shelling experience and a bite-free time.

Bring a bag to carry your finds: While a small plastic bag will certainly do, I tend to favor a drawstring mesh bag; it makes it much easier to rinse off your treasures.

Watch the tides: If you’re heading for a remote beach, be sure to check the tide tables for high and low tides; you don’t want to be surprised by a rapidly rising incoming tide that prohibits you from getting get back to the car without getting completely soaked.

One more thing, if you do uncover an interesting shell and decide that you MIGHT want to add it to your collection, be sure to bag it on the spot! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided that I would come back and look at my find on my return trip. Of course, despite my leaving markers, there was no way I could find the same shell again.

OK, now, where to look: Any all and beaches in the Grand Strand area offer plenty of opportunities. Based on recent expeditions, I’ve found that just north of Springmaid pier is a good location. I also like Garden City beach heading south from the pier – there are generally fewer people and more opportunities to find interesting shells. If you’ve got the time and energy, walk south all the way to the point – it’s a lovely stroll.

And even though you have to pay an entrance fee, don’t overlook either Myrtle Beach State Park or Huntington Beach State Park, they are excellent local choices with plenty of other opportunities to learn more about our local flora and fauna.

If you’re looking for somewhere a little less populated, try Pawleys Island.

Looking further afield, consider Bulls Island, about 75 miles south of Myrtle Beach. The Island is part of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and can be reached by ferry.

About 90 miles south of Myrtle Beach, the Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island, just north of Charleston, are good bets.

I should also mention that both the north and south ends of Folly Island, south of Charleston, not only offer great shelling opportunities, but a chance to see some other amazing sea creatures including starfish and sand dollars.

Both live starfish and sand dollars are brown-colored. Dead sand dollars are white. Finding dead starfish requires a more careful search.

In any case, please remember that taking any live shells, sea urchins, starfish or sand dollars from the beach is severely frowned on by the local authorities and environmentalists. In addition, trying to turn living critters into dead ones involves a process that usually destroys the original color to say nothing of the awful smell the dead sea creature emits.

So, it’s OK to look and even pick up and examine these lovely creatures, but if they’re alive, please return them to the sea.

Wherever you decide to look, you’ll get the best results if you get there before other folks. So get out early and often! Take the proper precautions and enjoy yourself; the King wouldn’t have it any other way.

About this writer

  • Phil La Borie Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at

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