ABOVE: Atlantic calico scallop (center, top row): Its surface has about 20 rounded radiating ribs and diverse color patterns. It can grow up to 3 inches. The two bright reddish-orange shells in the bottom row are scaly scallops. The two smaller shells in the top row are rough scallops. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Marie Puleo
A small upstairs room of the Sandoway Discovery Center in Delray Beach holds a world-class collection of seashells that represents the lifelong passion of Albert and Ann Becker, a Wisconsin couple whose interest in shell collecting was sparked during a visit to Florida in 1953.
Over the next 40 years, they traveled the world in pursuit of the finest specimens, and eventually collected and cataloged nearly 10,000 shells from places such as Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Africa and even Antarctica.
The entire collection was donated to Sandoway in 2002 by the couple’s niece, and approximately 3,000 shells are on display.
The Beckers journeyed the globe to find many of their The
The Beckers journeyed to the far corners of the globe to find many of their jewels of the sea, but the beaches of Florida can also be a gold mine for shell collectors.
The most famous spots are Sanibel and Captiva islands, off Florida’s southwest coast, which boast some of the best shelling in the United States.
In Palm Beach County, there are numerous places that are excellent for shell hunting, such as Coral Cove Park on Jupiter Island, where more than 200 specimens reportedly have been found, including the prized paper nautilus and purple sea snail.
To get the best results from your shelling expedition, it’s important to remember that “it’s not just where you go, but when,” said research scientist and shell expert Dr. Blair Witherington, a native Floridian.
“The best time to look for shells is at low tide, and after a storm,” he said. One of the best places to look for smaller shells is in the wrack line, where marine debris including kelp, seagrass and driftwood gets washed up on the beach by high tides.
Beaches that are mechanically raked are poor places to find seashells, because everything is either turned under or hauled off.
Inlets, especially on the Atlantic Coast, are good places for shelling, and anywhere there is a reef right offshore. The Palm Beach Inlet and nearby Peanut Island can hold treasures like the Florida fighting conch, the alphabet cone or the Atlantic deer cowrie (one of the largest cowries in the world), which is often found in the summer after tropical storms and hurricanes.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park in North Palm Beach also should be at the top of the list, Witherington said.
“It’s by far my favorite place to look for shells in Palm Beach County,” he said. “Not because you find the most shells or the rarest shells, but because it’s an absolutely lovely place to visit.”
In Martin County, on Jupiter Island, is Blowing Rocks Preserve.
In Boca Raton, there are the beaches at Red Reef Park and Spanish River Park.
If you want to travel farther south, head to Dr. Von D. Mizell-Eula Johnson State Park in Hollywood, off A1A, or Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne near Miami.
While the collection of most empty seashells is permitted across the state, anyone who plans on taking living shells from the shoreline or water for personal use needs a permit from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“You don’t want to collect any live animal,” cautions Jeanne L. Murphy, a wildlife biologist who teaches the Florida master naturalist program, developed by the University of Florida. “It’s just not sustainable.”
Her advice for shell collectors is to notice everything and be inquisitive.
“Make sure you have a positive impact when you’re out there,” said Murphy. “If you choose to pick up a couple of empty shells, you can also help out nature by taking some litter off the beach while you’re at it. And make sure you share your enthusiasm with others.”
Shells that can be found on the beaches in Palm Beach County and throughout Florida
Common nutmeg: The exterior of this sturdy shell is etched with vertical ribs and revolving grooves, creating a crosshatched texture. It can measure up to almost 2 inches and has a surface color of white, pale yellow or orange with blotchy, orangish-brown bands.
Florida prickly cockle: Slightly oval in shape, this shell has about 30 deeply chiseled ribs covered with scoop-shaped scales, giving it a prickly appearance. Its exterior is cream mottled with tan or purplish brown; its interior is salmon to reddish purple. It can measure up to 2.7 inches.
Common jingle: Translucent, with an irregular round shape, these shells are made almost entirely of mother-of-pearl. They measure 1 to 2 inches in diameter and can be found in a variety of colors, including white, silver-gray, yellow and orange.
Atlantic kitten paw: These thick, flat shells have six to 10 radial ribs that resemble the toe joints of a kitten’s paw. They are usually white to gray, except for their orange ribs, and can be just over 1 inch long.
Banded tulip: It has a softly rounded spindle shape and is noted for the distinct dark reddish brown spiral lines on its main body whorl, which is typically ivory or bluish gray with orange or gray splotches. The shell may reach a length of about 4 inches.
Eastern auger (aka common American auger): This elongated, cone-shaped shell can reach about 2.5 inches in length. In between each of its 15 or so whorls are beaded spiral bands. Colors may be tan, gray or off-white.
Lettered olive: This glossy, cylindrical shell is covered with brown zigzag markings that look vaguely like letters of the alphabet. Shaped like an elongated olive, it can measure up to almost 3 inches in length and ranges in color from white (rare) to brownish gray.
Lightning whelk: This shell is easy to identify because, unlike most other marine snails, it has a left-handed opening. It can grow to 16 inches in length and is characteristically grayish-white, tan or creamy yellow, with young shells having brown vertical streaks that resemble lightning bolts.
Variable coquina: These diminutive, wedge-shaped shells come in a rainbow of glossy shades that are either solid or marked with concentric bands and rays. Measuring no more than 1 inch, they are also known as butterfly shells for the way they look when they open, with two halves joined by their hinge.
Atlantic slipper snail: The underside of this shell has a white shelf with an indented edge that creates a slipper-like appearance. The shell’s apex is bent to one side, and its smooth exterior can be yellow, cream, brownish or gray, often with longitudinal streaks. It reaches up to 2.5 inches.
• More information about shell collecting can be found in books in the Sandoway Discovery Center’s gift shop:
Florida’s Seashells, A Beachcomber’s Guide, Blair and Dawn Witherington, $9.95.
Shells of Florida: Atlantic Ocean & The Florida Keys, A Beachcomber’s Guide to Coastal Areas, Jeanne L. Murphy and Brian W. Lane, $7.95.
Sandoway Discovery Center, 142 S. Ocean Blvd., Delray Beach, 274-7263, www.sandoway.org. Admission: $5 per person
• The state parks mentioned in the article charge the following entrance fees: $4 for one person in a vehicle; $5, $6 or $8 for two to eight people in a vehicle, depending on the park; and $2 for anyone coming by bicycle or foot. Depending on the park, children under age 5 or 6 are free.
• There’s no entrance fee for Coral Cove Park or for day use of Peanut Island. Blowing Rocks Preserve costs $2 per adult; for children age 12 or under it’s free. Red Reef Park and Spanish River Park charge no entrance fee, but there’s a parking fee of $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends and holidays, for the whole day, and no charge for walkers or bicyclists.