Beachcombing is one of our favorite things to do.
Who doesn’t love free souvenirs from the sea? This guide provides images of sea shells and other items found on the beaches of Corolla, Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head as well as suggestions for the best shelling beaches in Outer Banks, NC!
Where is the best place to find sea shells on the Outer Banks?
Visitors looking to collect local sea shells always ask us where the best beaches are for shelling on the Outer Banks, NC. With so many shelling beaches to choose from it’s hard to know where to start. Ultimately the answer is truly all of them!
Weather, currents, and our shoreline are constantly changing, so you never know quite where the best seashell beds will be day-to-day. If you aren’t having luck at your nearest beach access, give a different one a try! There are many public beach accesses to choose from.
As much as it would be nice to be able to direct our guests to one place guaranteed to be the best shelling beach in the Outer Banks, there is no way as they change all of the time. So head out on your beachcombing day ready for a fun adventure that may take you no further than your closest beach access or may take you on a bit of a journey!
When is the best time to collect sea shells?
Beachcombing is in-season all year round. If you’re an early riser, head to the shore for sunrise. Some great shells may have washed up overnight, plus there’s nothing quite like watching the sun rise over the Atlantic. (This is also a common time of day to spot dolphins swimming offshore!) It’s also helpful to follow the tides. Low tide is the ideal time to beachcomb, before the water rises to cover what the waves brought onto the sand.
Scotch Bonnets are the official North Carolina state seashell! The shell is grown by a type of sea snail and can be 2-4 inches on the longest side. They can be shades of brown, yellow, and orange.
Ocean Quahog shells are hinged clam shells, but it’s rare to find the two sides still attached once they wash up on the beach. These are thick shells that tend to have a white interior with a purple rim, but some have no purple coloring at all. The oldest living animal on the planet was a quahog at 507 years old!
Broken Pieces of Ocean Quahogs
When quahog shells break up into pieces, it can expose more of the purple coloring commonly found in the deeper layers of the shell. Over time these pieces become worn and smooth. White and purple quahog pieces were used by Native Americans to create wampum beads, which were used at currency.
Atlantic Giant Cockles
Cockles are radially-ribbed hinged clam shells, but it is uncommon to find the two sides still hinged together on Outer Banks beaches. Atlantic Giant Cockles range in size from about a half inch to six inches at their widest part. They are usually off-white with brown and red markings, and their interior is commonly smooth and pink.
Scallops are clam shells, and they can be found in a wide variety of colors on the Outer Banks. They are typically about three inches at their widest width and are radially-ribbed with “ears” sticking out slightly on either side of their base where the hinge would be. It isn’t common to find the two sides still hinged together on the beach.
Coquinas are small hinged clam shells that grow to be smaller than an inch. You can find these on Outer Banks beaches at the tide line with both sides still held together by the delicate hinge, which give them a butterfly-like shape. They are typically white on both sides. The interior can have tinges of purple and yellow.
A variety of Whelks are sea snails. A variety of whelk shells can be found on Outer Banks beaches, but the knobbed whelk and lightning whelk are the most common. Lightning whelk shells have their opening on the left side, and knobbed whelks have their opening on the right side. These sprial shells can be found in a variety of sizes.
Atlantic Surf Clams
Atlantic Surf Clams are hinged clam shells that are usually white, gray, yellow, and brown. They can grow to be nearly 9 inches, but it’s very rare to find them that large.
Mussel shells are wedge-shaped, hinged, and are typically black and dark blue or purple. It’s common to find these shells still hinged on the beach at the tide line.
Ark Clams are thick, hinged shells with radial ridges. They can be found in a wide variety of colors on the Outer Banks, but white and gray are the most common.
Oyster shells are usually teardrop-shaped but can be found in other more freeform shapes as well. They’re comprised of many layers depending on how old they are.
Sea Stars (or starfish) found on the Outer Banks have five tapered arms, also called rays, radiating out from their body. Sea stars are a wonderful beachcombing find, but they should not be taken out of the water or picked up from the sand if at all soft or limp — they could still be alive and are very fragile animals. Once dead, sea stars are dry and stiff.
Shark Eye Moon Snails
Shark Eye Moon Snail shells can be 5 inches at their widest point. They are smooth, spiral-shaped, spherical shells found in a variety of color ranging from brown to blue-gray.
Disk Dosinias are white, flat hinged clam shells. They can be about 3 inches wide.
Baby’s Ear Moon Snails
Baby’s Ear Moon Snails have thin and fragile shells. They have a flattened spiral shape that resembles…and ear! They are typically white, yellow, brown, or gray.
Razor Clam shells are smooth and delicate with a hinge on their long side. They can be up to 9 inches long and resemble the shape of a straight-razor.
Sand Dollars found on Outer Banks beaches are flat discs that can be about 1 to 4 inches at their widest point, and they have a flower-like shape in the center of their body. Sand dollars are brittle, fragile, and white from sun-bleaching. If you find a sand dollar that is a darker color and has fur-like growth on it, it may still be alive and should not be handled.
Driftwood is simply worn pieces of wood that have washed up on the shore. Salt water and wave action lighten and smooth the wood over time, removing any bark.
Sea glass comes from glass objects that made their way into the ocean, broke up, and eroded to small smooth pieces over time. The most common colors that wash up on the Outer Banks are white, amber, and green. Learn more about Outer Banks sea glass on our blog.
Fulgurite is sand and sediment fused together by lightning strikes! These pieces of petrified lightning are often mistaken for concrete because of their color (often gray on the Outer Banks) and odd shapes. Although they may not look like much from the outside, they’re usually hollow, and the inside is smooth glass.
Skate & Ray Egg Cases
Skate and Egg Cases, often called “mermaid purses” are black capsules with two skinny tendrils at the top and bottom.
We’d love to see your beachcombing finds!
As noted, the best shelling beaches in the Outer Banks, NC are truly all of them! Tag us in your shell photos on Instagram or send them to us on Facebook and let us know which beach you were shelling and beachcombing on.
If you’re feeling creative, we’re always sharing new shell display and DIY ideas on Pinterest.