Inside the Wild World of Shell Collecting

Picking up shells on the beach may seem like child’s play, but to elite shell collectors, it’s a hobby and a lifestyle. Unbeknownst to most non-shellers, there’s an entire culture of avid collectors who come together regularly to celebrate shells for their beauty and unlock secrets from the sea.


Last month, Earther traveled to Sanibel Island, Florida to check out the biggest shell show in America. Exhibitors showed off their collections, competed for prizes and swapped shelling stories and knowledge at the 81st edition of the Sanibel Shell Show. Thousands of locals and tourists, some of whom came just for the show, shuffled through the rows of exhibits.

Visitors marveled at what they saw, mouths agape at intricate shell art and expansive exhibits on the science, all put together by amateurs who simply can’t get enough of shells and their varied forms. Their finds—usually discovered at low tide in the early mornings (or late night depending on how you view 4 a.m.)—also inform professional scientists and improve our understanding of the ocean.

Shellers frequently share their discoveries to researchers at the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum located on the island, creating “an ongoing synergy” according to Jose Leal, the museum’s science director.

“You can’t do what we do if you don’t love shells,” Mary Burton, the co-chair of the Sanibel Shell Show’s artistic division, told Earther.

Verdict: true.

Managing editor, Earther



I second the poster who said please, don’t do this. CaCO3 is a varying compound of calcium and carbonate (alkalai salts or minerals) that gives rise to stuff like chalk, shells and limestone. Mollusks, mussels, barnacles and sea urchins in seawater continually secrete this compound that gives structure to their shells. The outer shell of bird eggs also uses CaCO3 for structure. Shorebirds often get the calcium from their diet of shelled marine organisms. Clearly the rising acidity of the ocean dissolves these structures and will have a cascade effect on most life and structure on many islands. Structure of beaches depend on shells just like soil depends on decomposing organisms like trees. Please leave the shells where they are.