Beachcombing On The Outer Banks

by Jessie S.



Beachcombing is an activity that is enjoyed by both kids and adults alike. As peaceful and serene as it is thrilling, it’s a hobby that can be done at any time of day and any day of the year. There’s just something so exciting about strolling along the sand and spotting a gorgeous piece of coral or trying to grab that perfect whelk you caught a glimpse of before it is reclaimed by the ocean. Whether you are trying to find a rare piece of sea glass, hunting for a shark-tooth or even looking for pirate treasure, you never quite know what you will find when you take a walk along our barrier islands. With roughly 200-miles of ever-changing coastline, the Outer Banks is the ultimate destination for a beachcombing adventure so book an Outer Banks Beach Rental and start searching!
 

When is The Best Time to Hunt for Shells?

While there are certainly conditions that may increase your luck at finding that perfect shell, it’s important to remember that the ocean and the beach are constantly changing. The same stretch of sand can look different from one day to the next with a simple shift in the tides or the weather. That being said, a good rule of thumb to remember is that shells are washed up with stronger waves (and can be swallowed back into the ocean by those same waves!) Try scoping out the sand at low tide or after a large storm to see what may have washed ashore. If you are planning to look along one of the more populated areas lined with oceanfront properties - be sure to go early before the shoreline gets picked over.

Tip: Check around the sound beaches as well! Don’t forget that the many sound
waters of the Outer Banks are fed by the ocean making the shallow water a great place to look for something unique.
 

What Type of Sea Treasures Can I Find?

Where to even start! The variety of amazing shells and other sea treasures you can find along the Outer banks coast is incredible. Here is just a small sample of what you might come across:
 

  • Sea Shells -
    There are literally millions of shells in the ocean and although some may be more common than others, the perfect shell is really in the eye of the beholder! If you want a beach keepsake or are working on a craft project, look for whatever strikes your eye. Whelks and Conchs are remarkable but often broken so when you find one that is whole, be sure to grab it fast! It isn’t uncommon to see a whelk shell lying on the beach that looks like it is just waiting for you to pick it up - only to find that it has a giant hole on the other side as you turn it over. You can also find a variety of bivalve mollusk shells (oysters, scallops, clams, snails and mussels) with Quahog and Coquinas being most common. Other great finds include Olive shells, Periwinkle shells, sundials, and the rare Scotch Bonnet.

     

  • Skeletons/Fossils - Slightly different than shells but also sought after by many beachcombers are various skeletal or fossilized remains of sea creatures. These are often very fragile so be sure to keep them someplace safe if you happen to find one on the beach! Some great finds to add to your collection include sand dollars, sea urchins, shark teeth, horseshoe crabs, sea biscuits and starfish/sea stars. (If you pick up any of these treasures, be sure that the animal is no longer alive. If it is, put it back in the water!) It’s also common to find various clusters of coral.

     

  • Egg Cases - This category may sound strange to you at first but you’ve undoubtedly stumbled across an egg case at some point in your beachcombing adventures and probably didn’t realize it. Egg cases are often attached to seaweed or other debris that washes ashore and scatters the beach. Whelk egg cases look like a stretched out spongy spinal cord and can vary in length depending on whether or not the case is still completely intact. Just as common are skate egg pouches, commonly referred to as a “Mermaid Purse” these dark brown/black pouches house skate embryos and often wash up once the skate has hatched. Some rays and shark species also produce these egg pouches in other parts of the world.

     

  • Sea Glass - Beautiful, rare, and highly sought after by beachcombers everywhere, sea glass can be found all over the Outer Banks. Chances are you have seen a piece of sea glass intricately weaved into a lovely necklace or even incorporated into a picture frame or other household decor so it’s easy to see why everyone would love to find a piece standing out amongst the shells. Sea glass is created when glassware that has washed into the ocean is continuously tumbled for years by the waves. Eventually, the glass becomes smooth to the touch and takes on a frosted appearance. It can take up to 10 years of tumbling surf for a piece of glass to become “sea glass.” Sea glass comes in many shapes and sizes - it is entirely dependent upon how large the original broken piece of glass started and long it has been tumbled. Sea glass can also be a variety of colors - from whites, browns and greens to reds, blues and purples- depending on the color of the original glass. This means that each piece of sea glass you find is unique and some are rarer than others - especially colors of glass that are not widely manufactured anymore.

     

  • Other Sea Treasures - Maybe you aren’t looking for shells at all! Debris and other artifacts have been known to wash up from the ocean so always be on the lookout for something that may stand out to you or could be useful for a nautical-themed DIY like a distinctive piece of driftwood. You may also find pieces of pottery, old coins, and other manmade objects that have been aged by the ocean. If you think you have found something rare, consider taking it to a local museum or seek expert advice from a historian or archaeologist.
Tip: Purchase a guidebook from a local gift shop to keep on hand and cross-reference when you find something you’ve never seen before!
 

How Do I Clean My Shells?

No matter what type of sea treasure you find, chances are that it could use a little cleaning! After a few days, shells sometimes start to take on a slightly unpleasant odor so be proactive and clean them before you place them in your home and you won’t have to worry! The best way to clean shells is to let them soak in water a few days (intermittently changing the water) and then let them dry out completely. Some people prefer to use bleach but keep in mind that using too much can damage the shell and even leave its own odor. Shells and other beachcombing finds are often delicate so don’t stack too many pieces on top of each other when soaking! If you’re using a shell for a craft or decoration, consider rubbing it with a little mineral oil to give it a nice shine once it has dried.


Jessie has been coming to the Outer Banks since she was just 5 years old. She loved it here so much that she finally relocated in 2018. Now her mission is to show the world that the Outer Banks is an incredible place that everyone should experience. When she isn't working, you can find Jessie hanging out with her friends, chilling at home with her awesome cat, Yoji, or discovering a new Outer Banks adventure. 

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