A Guide to Hunting for Seashells and Sea Glass on the OBX

Hunting for Seashells 
Few places are as perfect for hunting seashells and sea glass as the pristine beaches of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. With miles of beaches, various inlets, islands and strong currents serious beachcombers have known for years that to explore our beaches is a great treat. During your Outer Banks beach vacation make sure to take some time to do a little beach-combing. Here is everything you need to know to have a successful day searching for the perfect piece of sea glass or seashell. 

Types of Seashells 

Types of OBX seashells

There are literally hundreds, even thousands of different shells that you can find along the Outer Banks. However, there are some shells that are truly special. Here are just a few of the shells that you'll want to keep an eye out for during your Outer Banks beach vacation. 

Whelks- Whelks are often confused with the Conch, but they are a unique and different variety of shell. Whelks have a conical shape, with a wide opening. On the tops of the shell you'll find wide spirals. These shells are very common along the Outer Banks and n fact along the entire East Coast. Whelks come in three varieties all with specific characteristics.

The largest of the three is the Lightning Whelk which can be 15" or larger. The Channeled Whelk is so named for its distinctive deep spirals. The Knobbed Whelk is basically the same as the Lightning Whelk with an opening on the opposite side (right side). Finding a large Whelk is a great find and one that will give you bragging rights among family and friends. 

Queen Helmet Conch- When you think of the traditional conch you're thinking of the Queen Helmet Conch. This Conch has a distinctive large fat conical shape. The Conch can be up to 12" long and heavy.  You'll recognize its large opening and pinkish red lips which feature hard white teeth. This shell is a rare treasure that is most likely found on southern facing beaches of the Outer Banks. 

The Scotch Bonnet- With its distinctive white color featuring brown specks this beautiful little fat shell is actually the official shell of the State of North Carolina. Even though this is the official state shell they are very rare on the Outer Banks. This shell is only about 2 inches in length so their size makes them even harder to find. If you find a Scotch Bonnet you've discovered a real Outer Banks treasure. 

Olive Shells-These small gems feature long conical tubes. You'll recognize their distinctive spirals and long openings. If you look closely these shells often feature dark purple or pink shades. Often Olive shells have unique geometric patterns or designs. If you find a shell that is bright in color with distinct patterns this indicates you've found a fresh shell that has not been in the ocean long. Olive shells are rarely more than 3" inches long so look closely for these little gems. 

Fun Facts 

5 Fun Facts about seashells and sea glass

1. Sea glass takes anywhere from 7 to 30 years to be completed worn by the ocean. Great sea glass has a frosted appearance.

2. Sea glass originally started out a common glass found in many common products like bottles and jars. 

3. Seashells have unique colors that are created by several factors including, water temperature, depth, and age. If you find a seashell that is pure white it means that shell is likely hundreds of years old. Seashells that have been in the depths of the ocean are often gray or a tar color.

4. Seashells come in all sorts of sizes. Female seashells tend to be larger than male shells. Additionally, the older the seashell is the larger it will be.

5. There are over 50,000 different types of mollusks and therefore 50,000 types of seashells.


Top 5 places to beachcomb on the OBX

The best places to go beachcombing all have a few things in common. First, they are generally places with a lot of wave action. While storms are certainly destructive, they also bring with them loads of sea glass and seashells. Luckily the Atlantic coast along the Outer Banks consistently produces strong storms. Another feature you want to look for is remote beaches.

The Outer Banks has several beaches that are remote. Because of their remote nature, fewer visitors go to these beaches leaving them less picked over then other more popular beaches. Finally, you want to look for beaches with unique characteristics like shallow shores, or dramatic drop-offs. Here are the top 5 places to go seashell hunting during your Outer Banks beach vacation.

1. Ocracoke Island- This island is worth a visit for several reasons, but its beaches are well worth a day trip. We don't recommend anyone beach as Ocracoke is subject to strong wave action and all of its beaches are great for seashell and sea glass hunting. Fall and early spring are great times to explore these beaches.

2. Portsmouth Island- If there was a top choice this would be it. Portsmouth Island is remote, with no permanent inhabitants, and while thousands of people visit each year, that is nothing in comparison to the number of waves, and pristine beaches the island has to offer those who are adventurous enough to explore this island. If you are a serious shell hunter this is a destination you must visit. Looking for more information on Portsmouth island? Check out our previous post: Why Portsmouth Island is the Ultimate OBX Day Trip. 

3. Carova- Located on the northern end of the Outer Banks, Carova is a beautiful beach that requires 4X4 Vehicles to get to. Because of the shallow shoreline these beaches are perfect for finding smaller delicate shells like auger or olive shells. 

4. Coquina Beach-
It is probably no surprise that a beach named after the Coquina clams that are responsible for some beautiful shells is a great place to do a little seashell hunting. Coquina is an amazing place to visit. There you can watch as thousands of coquina clams scoot along the shore. You will need a 4x4 to get there, but it is well worth the trip. Looking for tips on driving on the beach? Read our previous post: How to Enjoy Amazing Beach Driving on the OBX.

5. Frisco- Hatteras Beaches-All along Hatteras Island, from Frisco to Hatteras Village you'll find miles of outstanding beaches for seashell and sea glass hunting. This area is consistently battered by large waves and storms but features shallow shores. Beaches with shallow shores allow the shells to suffer less damage than those washed up in deeper ocean floors. This constant turbulence dumps thousands of shells and bits of sea glass upon these beaches.


Tips and Tricks

Tips and tricks

Beachcombing is a fun activity that everyone in the family can enjoy and with a few tips and tricks, you can increase your chances of finding those special treasures that will make your Outer Banks beach vacation more memorable.

Seaweed and Seagrass- A lot of people avoid those piles of seaweed and seagrass that wash up on shore. This is a big mistake as they are often hiding secret treasures.

Low tides- The best time to search for sea glass and shells is at low tide. With more of the beach exposed and the strong tidal action, you have a better chance of finding the shells you want.

The night is your friend- Make sure to hit the beach at night especially if there is a strong low tide. Look for full moons especially. With fewer folks on the beach and strong tides, it is the perfect time to look for treasures.

Avoid the sound- One of the best features of the Outer Banks is the sound. Because the sounds have calm warm waters they are ideal for families with kids, but due to the lack of wave action, it is not a good place to look for sea glass or seashells.

Piers- Don't overlook the piers. The pilings create constantly changing sands which are ideal for the beachcomber who is looking for an easy and convenient location to hunt for shells. Looking for shells along the piers will require a bit more digging and patience as they are popular places, but perfect for those with kids. 

No matter where you choose to stay during your Outer Banks beach vacation you'll be ideally located on some of the best beaches for beachcombing on the Atlantic Coast. Let us know your favorite place to hunt for seashells and sea glass by leaving a comment below. We look forward to seeing you on the OBX soon! 


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