Shell-Bent on Sanibel - Sea shells by the Sanibel sea shore

by Chelle Koster Walton, Florida Travel Editor

The classic bent-from-the-waist shelling stance here in the Shelling Capital of the Western Hemisphere has its own name: the Sanibel Stoop. Unlike its neighboring islands, Sanibel takes an east-west heading. Its perpendicular position and lack of offshore reefs let it intercept shells that arrive from south seas. Its fame as the third best shelling area in the world has made Sanibel a prime destination of shell collectors for decades.

Shelling is good anywhere along Sanibel's Gulf front. Bowman's Beach at the island's northwest end offers the least competition because of its remoteness. Five public beaches provide paid (75 cents/hour) parking for visitors. Parking stickers are available from the police department for long-term visitors.

If you are walking or biking, you can use resident accesses along the Gulf Drives, where crowds are also thinner.

For naturalist-class tours of Sanibel's beaches, contact Alice Anders' Tours (941-472-6797).

To learn more about shells, visit the newly opened Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum (941-395- 2233). It exhibits nearly a third of the world's 10,000 shell specimens in displays including shells in art and history, shell habitat, rare specimens, fossil shells, and common Sanibel-Captiva shells.

Piles, mounds, dunes of shells suit searchers.


Typical finds include lightning whelks, conchs, cockles, coquinas, pens, olives, cones, tulips, top shells, sand dollars and scallops. The rare junonia is the trademark shell prize of the island. Shellers who find one get their picture in the local paper. Resorts have been accused of planting them on their beaches for publicity.

Devoted searchers uncover more precious finds, such as the lion's paw and lace murex. Sanibel law prohibits the taking of live shells. No shelling is allowed in the island's "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

The annual Sanibel Shell Show, nearly 60 years old, takes place for four days in early March. Serious shellers compete; casual ones ogle and buy. A profusion of shell shops on the island also serves the needs of less ambitious shellers.

Other things to do on Sanibel? Bike the paved pathway and residential streets named King's Crown Drive, Conch Court and Shell Basket Lane. Shop for shelligrams, shell-filled ginger lamps, shell-inspired pottery and everything from shell-emblazoned T-shirts to shell-encased toilet seats.

Take a shellcraft class Mondays at the Sanibel Community Center (941-472-2155).

See the shell collection at the new Sanibel Library (941-472-2483).

Eat shellfish at the island's renowned seafood restaurants, such as McT's Shrimp House (941-472-3161).

Shelling charters take you to unbridged Cayo Costa and Johnson Shoals, to the north. To shell the upper islands, try Capt. Mike Fuery's Shelling Charters (941-466-3649).

You may want to stay at the 100-year-old Island Inn (941-472-1561), where Sanibel matriarch Granny Matthews initiated the Sanibel Shell Fair as a way to keep guests busy back in the 1930s and guests display their daily shell finds on tables outside their room doors.

Wherever you stay, and wherever you beach one thing seems certain -- you'll feel like a winner in Sanibel's shell game as you head home with your treasures.