The Most Prized Coastal Treasures To Be Found on the OBX

The Most Prized Coastal Treasures To Be Found on the OBX

The reason the Outer Banks of North Carolina often makes the list of best shelling beaches in the state is because the area encompasses miles of barrier islands, separated by three inlets, which collectively make up a wide variety of different beaches and a huge variety of different shell habitats—all in one place.

The beaches located above Cape Point in Buxton (often called the north-facing beaches) generally attract colder water shells that wash up from New England to North Carolina, while the beaches located after Hatteras Island (referred to as the south-facing beaches) hook back towards the mainland and can attract shells that are found from North Carolina to Florida. Add to that the proximity of two major ocean currents (the Gulf Stream and Labrador currents)—which bring in large migrating fish, marine life, and even seashells to the islands' borders—and you have a recipe for great shelling, endless beach combing and big adventure. As you can see, the Outer Banks is a coastal treasure hunter's dream! 

What can beachcombers expect to find along the OBX beaches, inlets and shoreline? Actually one never knows what they may stumble upon on any given day, but here are three of the most prized natural treasures you can find.


Rare Seashells

Rare Seashells on the Outer Banks

Shelling is an Outer Banks must-do activity! Searching for beach treasure along the shoreline and uncovering what Mother Nature has strewn upon the sand is a new adventure every time you do it. While there are many beauties to be found, here are a few prized possessions that stand out from the rest. 
Scotch Bonnet: Also the state shell of North Carolina, the Scotch Bonnet is actually a pretty rare and very prized find. It is arguably one of the best finds on the Outer Banks. A conical shell with a fat middle section and a stark white color with small, brown specks covering the body, the Scotch Bonnet is simply a beautiful shell to behold. Averaging 2" long, it's not a large find but still very striking.

Whelks: Whelks come in three different varieties: lightening whelks, knobbed whelks and channeled whelks. How do they differ? The lightning whelk is generally the largest at 14" long or more, the knobbed whelk which is literally a mirror of the lightning whelk as it has a "right-sided" opening instead of a left oriented one, and the channeled whelk has deep channeled spirals instead of the spiny spirals that knobbed and lightning whelks have. Whelks can range widely in color and size with young ones around the 2-inch mark and giant whelks reaching 14-16 inches in size.
Olive Shells: Olive shells resemble long, pointed tubes with a small number of spirals at the top, and a long opening that has shades of pink or even dark purple on the inside. A fresh olive shell whose color hasn't been battered by ocean waves and sand is a prized find, patterned with hundreds of tiny triangles and very intricate, abstract designs. At just 2-3" long, the olive shell is a delicate and lovely Outer Banks treasure.


Queen Helmet Conch: The helmet conch is a fat conical shell that is distinctive because of its large opening, with bright pink or red "lips" which are usually lined with small hard "teeth." A helmet conch can be a large, heavy find, measuring in at 12" long or more. Found sparingly on the south facing beaches, the helmet conch really is an Outer Banks treasure.

These are just a few of the more rare but highly prized shelling finds on the Outer Banks beaches. You can expect to find shell beds filled with more common shells including coquina clams, quahogs, oysters, augers, moon snails, periwinkles, pen and clam shells. You never really know what you'll find, as every OBX beachcombing adventure is unique.


RELATED READING: How to Score the Best Seashells on the OBX




Colored Sea Glass 

Prized Colored Sea Glass on the OBX


Sea glass is a prized coastal treasure that results from broken shards of glass being tumbled by the sand and sea then transformed into a thing of beauty. Not all sea glass is created equal though. Some colors and styles of sea glass are more rare than others.

Green, brown, white and clear sea glass: These colors are most modern and most common. They are the result of various broken glass items that make their way into the water like bottles, glassware, windshields and windows. 

Amber and green sea glass: These colors are a little more rare in the world of sea glass. They usually originate from bottles and dinnerware from the late 1960s and later.

Blue, purple, turquoise and black sea glass: Now we're approaching the more prized finds that are highly sought after by the sea glass connoisseur. These colors are becoming increasingly more rare with each passing year. This colored glass originates from glassware items from the early 1900s, the Great Depression era and onward through the 1930s. Most of this sea glass comes from medicine bottles, liquor bottles and cosmetics containers from this era. 

Red, orange and yellow sea glass: The warm-colored sea glass is the cream of the crop. These colors of glass were not mass produced in this country and therefore are the most rare and most expensive types of sea glass.

Thick white, clear or green sea glass: Modern sea glass is typically thin, so if you come across a thick piece of sea glass you may also have a highly prized find. If it's an inch or more thick, it could be from a shipwreck of the past. Clear or white sea glass of this thickness can be from a ship's window while thick green sea glass can be from a ship's prism. 

So next time you're on a beachcombing adventure on the Outer Banks, pay special attention to those sparkling glints in the sun and those colored treasures strewn among the shells, seaweed and other beach debris. Sea glass makes for a wonderful beach souvenir or memento to take home with you, which can be made into one-of-kind jewelry or kept on display as a constant reminder of the beauty created by the sand and sea.

RELATED READING: Outer Banks Vacation Beachcombing


Elusive Shark Teeth 

Elusive Shark Teeth on the Outer Banks & Where to Find Them


The Outer Banks is not one of those popular beaches known for catching a lot of shark teeth along the shoreline. Why? Perhaps it has to do with the placement of fossil beds (or lack thereof) or perhaps it just has to do with the shark population in relation to the location. Who knows.

That's not to say that you can't find shark teeth on the Outer Banks. They are found every once in awhile mixed in with the shells, sand and hidden among the other natural treasures found along the beach. They're usually pretty tiny in size as compared to shells and sea glass, but these triangular treasures are known to wash up every now and again. 

Here are some shark teeth hunting tips to help you in your search:

  • These jagged gems are usually shaped like cake wedges or t-shaped.
  • They have jagged edges on the bottom and smooth tops and can easily be confused with triangular-shaped shells. Look for the jagged edges! 
  • Newer shark teeth are whitish in color, while fossilized teeth are dark gray or black. 
  • Wide, flat teeth belong to bottom-dwelling sharks.
  • Wedge-shaped teeth belong to aggressive sharks such as great whites, bull and tiger sharks.
  • Skinny teeth come from sharks that need to catch slippery fish, such as mako sharks. 

PRO TIP: Are you looking for the best bet when it comes to finding shark teeth? You can visit the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island in Manteo! They have a fossil pit where you can dig (and actually find) shark teeth. There's nothing wrong with stacking the odds in your favor! 


More Beachcombing Tips When Searching for Coastal Treasures: 

With any coastal treasure hunt on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, it's always best to scour less-busy areas of the beach, near piers and inlets, right before or after low tide, during full or new moon phases when the tide pull is stronger, and after a storm or during hurricane season when the water is churned up more than normal bringing many hidden treasures to the surface.

Also bump up your odds of finding prized coastal treasures by choosing an oceanfront Outer Banks rental where the beach is your front yard every day of your OBX vacation and the close, convenient beach access makes it easy to get out there before anyone else does.

Happy coastal treasure hunting! Let us know what you find.

Have you uncovered any prized Outer Banks treasures on the beach? What's your favorite thing to beachcomb for: seashells, sea glass, shark teeth or something else? 

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