Shelling in Sanibel

While I was planning one of my road trips across the USA, I came across information about a few rather interesting places – the Sanibel and Captiva Islands. These islands are considered some of the prime locations in the world for collecting seashells, and are definitely the #1 spot within the US. They are located in Florida, in Lee county, and are connected to the continent via a bride (the nearby vicinity of which is populated by a huge amount of pelicans). According to the results of a poll, these islands are considered to be the best location to purchase a vacation home in. Still, the purchase of land here comes bundled with a significant amount of risk – in the past 100 years alone, hurricanes have significantly changed the shapes of the islands, and even their count! Prior to 1926. , Sanibel and Capitva were actually one whole, but then a large storm created the Blind Pass strait and separated them into two islands. Over the years, the strait has deepened and continued forming anew, like the other straits which now divide each island into smaller and smaller territories.


It so happened that we visited the islands on Valentine’s Day. We don’t usually celebrate this particular holiday, since it seems a bit too commercialized, but this was certainly one of our more romantic Valentine’s Days. Seeing how the Sanibel and Captiva islands were just one of the stops on our 5000 km long journey across the US, we only stayed there for one night. Regardless, the islands have very beautiful beaches and a very well developed tourist environment, where you could easily spend several days.

The islands’ original inhabitants, the Native American tribe Calusa, were already living here as long as 2500 years ago, and lived on the territory up until the moment that the Europeans arrived. During the tribes’ years of flourishing, it is estimated that there were as many as 50 000 inhabitants on the islands. There are legends that the islands also used to be a pirate hideout. However, the general consensus is that this is merely a rumor created to attract tourists. Nevertheless, tourists will not be bored here, since the islands are located right next Florida (which has a very pleasant climate) and the continental United States. In addition, the islands offer a wide variety of activities to suit a wide variety of tastes.

As I was reading about the activities available on the island, I decided that first and foremost we had to go seashell hunting. The islands are positioned against the currents in a particular way, which causes a significantly larger amount of seashells to wash up there, compared to beaches on the main continent. I also discovered that hotels in the area often have designated sinks for rinsing the collected seashells.

I like seashells and try to collect them whenever I get the chance to, so it was decided – we were going seashell hunting! The best shot at finding them is going hunting during low tide, when the water is as far away as possible. Those familiar with the hobby/business said that the best spots for hunting are Bowman’s Beach and the beach by the Blind Pass strait. Hunting is exceptionally successful when construction work is being done in the ocean, since then all of the seashells that were buried in the sand also wash ashore. The rules are simple – anyone can take as many seashells as they want, with an exception – if the inhabitant is still inside, even if it appears to be dead. Picking up sea urchins and starfish is also prohibited, even including flat sea urchins (more commonly known as sand dollars). You will usually come across one of approximately eight types of seashells on the islands, starting with flat,  white, pink and spot-pattern shells (which, if their inhabitant was big enough, can sometimes be used as plates), and ending with the fighting conch, which is one of the few non-carnivorous snails and a relative of the queen conch species. These snails are quite large, and in the past were fished for their meat, but doing so is now illegal.

We got up a long time before sunrise to make sure we wouldn’t be late for the lowest possible tide, and headed to Bowman’s Beach. We parked at a paid parking lot (even though it was very early in the morning, we still had to pay), and, wrapped in our overcoats, with bags in hand, went over the bridge, to the beach. I was even wearing a hat, since the morning was very cold – even with air temperature reaching over 20°C during the day and water being nearly as warm. And what did we see at the beach? People already walking away from the beach, with flashlights and bags full of seashells, despite the fact that it wasn’t even 7 AM yet! Turns out, if you want to get the best seashells, you’ll have to be here when it is still dark and the tide is only starting to go back. Then, all the seashells that were almost washed ashore, finally reach the zone normally covered by water, and are ready to be collected. The very best shells are actually collected straight from the water, without even waiting for the tide to go back. We also saw imprints from starfish in the sand, the “author” of which, despite the regulations, was probably in one of the bags we saw carried away before the sunrise by now.


Mildly disappointed, we still examined the beach, where there weren’t too many seashells remaining. Of course, if you compare them to the shells found on Latvian beaches, these were still gigantic, but after seeing photos on the internet, we were expecting to find more of them.

As the Sun rose higher up in the sky, we headed to the furthest end of Captiva Island, where finding parking spots was very easy, but once again – paid. The beach was full of people – kids playing with seashells and old people walking their dogs. It was here that we finally saw a more impressive amount of shells. Here, we were finally able to fill up our bags with shells, but even here, contrary to expectation, the entire beach was not covered in them. They were gathered up in piles, in a way that some spots had a lot, and some had none at all. We became picky, and started to only pick up shells with no visible damage, beautifully colored and showing no signs of crumbling. The vast majority of them were the previously mentioned flat shells, and we ended up not finding a single whole, cone-shaped shell. While we were shell hunting, we noticed dolphins in the water, which were jumping out of the waves every now and then. We decided that there truly was something romantic about the whole experience – going seashell hunting on Valentine’s Day, before sunrise, and even seeing some dolphins along the way.


We also wanted to have a look at the famed J.N. Ding Darling wildlife shelter, but unfortunately we found out that it was closed on Fridays. Since we had only designated one day in our trip to spend on this location, we ended up with nothing on that front. The shelter is famous for its migrant birds, mangrove growths, as well as its crocodiles. We had to make do without crocodiles, this time, but after the sunset we saw a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting by its nest, feasting on some prey.

As the sunset was nearing, there were more and more people on the beach, who were laying out picnic blankets in celebration of Valentine’s Day, with many even bringing their own tables and plastic chairs with them. And as the Sun sank into the sea, they had dinner at candlelight.

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