The Shell Game

On the Road, Travel Destinations
on June 30, 2014
Collecting Sea Shells

It’s peak beach season and as beachcombers know, shells—washed up on the seashore and dotted on the sand—are ripe for the picking. There’s no finer souvenir from the lazy, hazy days of summer than the perfect shell or two (or more, if you’ve got a big enough bucket).

For Pam Rambo, 51, a self-described “shellunatic”—shorthand for this shell collector, artist and blogger—shelling is more than a summer pastime. It’s a daily obsession. Rambo lives on the most famous strip of land for shellers in the United States—Florida’s Sanibel Island—and estimates that she’s picked up more than a half million “treasures” since her childhood combing Virginia beaches on family camping trips.

Her husband, Clark, grew up equally obsessed in New Jersey, and the couple’s first date was spent shelling. Today, the two spend hours together every week in loving competition over rare finds. When Clark, a real estate agent, closes a sale, Pam creates a mirror framed by hundreds of bleach-white, whimsical worm shells as a gift for the new homeowners.

“I shell all the time,” says Rambo, who hits the beach at least five times a week for several hours at a stretch. And while she delights in every find, from Angel Wings and Shark’s Eyes to Hairy Tritons and Wentletraps, her shelling takes on a much broader and rewarding dimension. “You see different things at different times,” she says. “The birds, the wildlife, the sea life, the beach bling”—her term for items that wash up along with shells. “It’s all about the walking, the smell of it, the sound of it. Shelling is a reason to get out there and see everything.”


Rambo, who says every day brings new discoveries, shares some insider tips for bringing home keepers.

Stay Close: If possible, stay at a hotel or inn close to the beach for easy access early in the morning and later in the evening. Bonus: No parking hassles.

Chase Storms: The richest days for hunting are one to two days after a storm, especially when the winds were directed shoreward. On Sanibel, for example, winds from the west dump thousands of shells on its westward-facing beaches.

Go Low: Low tide (occurring twice every 24 hours), leaves the most shoreline exposed for hunting; peak times are one hour before and one hour after low tide. Local newspapers often publish tide charts. Online, search for the beach (or island) in question and click on “tides.”

Shoot the Moon: Full and new moons have the most extreme tides, providing ideal conditions for shelling. Check online for moon cycles.

Get Wet: If seas are reasonably calm, roll up your cuffs and get a little wet in the shallows. (The distance varies from beach to beach; shallows extend up to 100 yards in some places). Lucky shellers might scoop up a treasure before it’s exposed to the air.

Anybody Home? Always check each shell for an inhabitant. Only empties should leave the beach. (This is an important rule for any shell you pick up.)

Get Weedy: Rookies overlook clumps of seaweed, where many fine shells hide out. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Pre-beachcombing: Be sure to check out state shelling regulations in advance, especially when visiting state parks, national parks and wildlife refuges. Some areas post limits or prohibit collecting certain types of shells.


For some of the best shelling on America’s coasts, check out the following gold-star beaches.

– The entire coastline of Sanibel island, fla. (don’t miss lighthouse Beach and Blind pass, rambo’s personal favorites)
– Portsmouth island, outer Banks, N.C.
– Dungeoness Beach, cumberland island, Ga.
– Western end of Galveston island, Texas
– Stinson Beach, Calif.


Once your collection grows beyond a few beauties, it’s time to display your favorites. Here are some easy and inexpensive ideas.

Grouping in glass: Choose a glass vase, bowl, hurricane lamp, or mason jar and fill it with one kind of shell. Display tiny shells in a vintage glass ashtray.

Framed up: Buy an inexpensive shadowbox frame (or set of frames) and group shells by type in rows and patterns, gluing them in place on backing. Combine a variety of framed pieces on the same wall for major impact.

Planter punch: If you’ve collected larger shells such as whelks and conchs, combine them in outdoor urns and pots to decorate your patio.

Combination baskets: Try combining a lively mixture of shapes and colors in wicker or wire baskets for table accents.