One of the most common questions from new visitors to Wrightsville Beach is “Where can I find shells?” And while Wrightsville Beach can have decent shelling conditions, a little planning and timing may be required to find the true treasures that wash up on this section of the North Carolina coastline.
Visitors who love beachcombing, however, will find ample options for catching a ride to the best shelling spots, or increasing their chances of finding a prize-worthy shell or two close to home. So bring along your bags and your sense of adventure on your next Wrightsville Beach vacation, and try your hand at uncovering some of the best souvenirs that Atlantic Ocean has to offer.
Where to find Shells in and around Wrightsville Beach
One of the best ways to enhance your chances of finding a great shell on Wrightsville Beach is to head to isolated regions where the crowds don’t follow, starting with Masonboro Island.
Mansonboro Island Coastal Estuarine Reserve is the largest undisturbed and undeveloped island along southern North Carolina, and comprises of more than 5,600 acres of shoreline and coastal terrain. Stretching for roughly 8.4 miles, the island is a part of the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve system, and as such, is completely devoid of commercial development, as well as bridges, and the throngs of people that typically congregate along the neighboring populated beach towns.
This means that beachcombers have an excellent chance of finding great shells with little competition if they can reach Masonboro Island. Taking a stroll along the tidal flats can result in sand dollar and whelk finds, while a walk along the beaches can turn up some smaller but no less enticing shells, such as scallops, augers, and olive shells.
The only drawback to Masonboro Island’s isolation is its accessibility. The island can only be reached by a boat or kayak, which can be hard to navigate through the narrow channels, depending on the tides. Hiring a guide, reserving a shelling cruise, or booking a “water taxi” to the island may be the best way to go to access the shoreline without fear of running aground and getting stuck in the soft sand.
The shorelines within the town limits of Wrightsville Beach can produce some great shells as well, however, depending on the weather conditions and seasons. Visitors may want to head north, past the aptly named Shell Island Resort, to reach the less crowded beaches that border the inlet to start their hunting, or visitors can also simply take a stroll in the early morning hours to see what has washed ashore.
Many locals attest that the best time to go shelling is during the winter, when the beach crowds have long disappeared and visitors can more or less enjoy the shorelines all to themselves. The odds of finding great shells increases as well after a seasonal hurricane or fall nor’easter brushes through the area, leaving decent finds in its wake after the high winds and waves have calmed down.
Shelling Tours and Cruises
Visitors who want the best odds of finding great shells can book a shelling cruise or tour, which launches from the heart of Wrightsville Beach, and which traditionally provides access to Masonboro Island, as well as hard-to-get-to shorelines like Figure 8 Island, or even Zeke’s Island Reserve, (which is located south of Kure Beach.)
There are several shell tour options available, which generally last for a couple hours, and which take shell seekers to popular beaches where the shells regularly wash up in the summer months. A knowledgeable guide provides both the transportation and a few tips along the way, which makes it even easier to both reach secretive destinations, and load up on great finds. For more information, visitors can contact a local tour company, like Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours, to see what options are available, and / or to plan a trip that’s tailored to their beachcombing tastes.
Types of Shells on Wrightsville Beach
What you’ll find is completely dependent on where you go, and what kind of luck you have on an ensuing shelling adventure, but Wrightsville Beach shell fans will generally want to keep an eye out for these popular finds.
Scotch Bonnet – This rare find is one of the best treasures on the beach for many shell seekers, and is also famed as the state shell of North Carolina. Measuring roughly 1.5” to 5” long, this fat conical shell is unmistakable for its shape, and ridged body that’s flecked with brown spots.
Sand Dollar – Keyhole sand dollars can wash up intact around the Wrightsville Beach area, thanks to the region’s gently sloping shoreline and light wave activity. Sand dollars can be anywhere from 1” to 5-6” wide, and are typically white or tan in color.
Whelks – Often found along Mansonboro Island during a low tide, whelks can wash up in three distinct varieties, (channel, lightning, and right knobbed whelks), and can measure anywhere from 1-2” to up to 16” in length. Prized for their shape, whelks are often mistaken for conchs due to their spirals, cylindrical body, and large opening.
Olive Shell - Also a conical treasure, the olive shell is skinny with a long opening, and is known for its speckled body and often violet interior. This shell is a smaller prized find, and can measure from 1” to about 3” long at most.
Pen Shell – This delicate shell has an initially muddy brown exterior, but take a second look, and shell seekers will notice an iridescent quality with all the colors of the rainbow. These bivalve shells often wash up in the winter, and can measure anywhere from 5” to about 10” long.
Moon Snails – These fat, conical shells have a central spiral and a perfectly circular shape. Also known as a “shark’s eye,” these shells can be anywhere from ½’ to 4-5” wide.
Scallops – There are two types of scallops that regularly wash up along the Wrightsville Beach shoreline: the Atlantic Bay Scallop and the Calico Scallop. Though identical in size and shape, the Calico Scallop is considered the prettier of the two species, thanks to its flecks of pink, red and / or rose.
Coquinas – Small and very colorful, the tiny 1” or less coquina clam washes up along the ocean surf regularly around Wrightsville Beach, and comes in a rainbow of colors that can range from brown, to bright violet or yellow, to everything in between.
Jackknife Clam – Another shell that is distinctive for its shape, the jackknife clam is a long skinny bivalve shell that can measure from roughly 3” long to 8” or more.
Augers, periwinkles, oyster drillers – These tiny shells are often found in “piles” of shells and sediment, and are small spiral shells that are prized for their ornate shape and beauty. Look for them along the low tide line, and in tidal flats along the soundside and on Masonboro Island.
Arc clams, quahogs, and other clams – Clams are arguably the most prominent species along the beaches, and can wash up in a variety of species, shapes, colors, and sizes. Prized for their use in arts and crafts, clams are found everywhere along Wrightsville Beach – both on the oceanside and soundside.
Tips and Ticks for Finding Shells on Wrightsville Beach
- For the best finds, (and best parking areas), go early. The beaches can get crowded in the summer months, which means that the early birds generally catch the best finds.
- Take a day trip for even more shelling opportunities. North Carolina beaches are famed for their seashells, and other coastal destinations like Ocracoke Island, Hammocks Beach State Park, and the Cape Lookout National Seashore are well known for their excellent shelling.
- Don’t forget to keep an eye out for sea glass! Smooth pieces of sea glass are also popular finds along the shoreline, and regularly wash up in a myriad of shapes and colors.
- For better odds, try to time a beach trip after a low tide, or after a storm or hurricane. Large weather systems can often bring more unusual treasures to the local beaches, but shell seekers will want to wait until the skies have cleared to go hunting.
- With mild winters and few crowds, the off-season is a great time to go hunting. Plan a December, January, or February trip to enjoy great shelling and the island landscape virtually all to yourself.
- Don’t forget to look both in and out of the water – shuffling with your toes in shallow ocean waters or tidal pools can result in great finds that are just below the surface.
Wrightsville Beach may not be well known for its shelling, but the area certainly has a few hot spots to attract beachcombers who want to acquire a great find or two. Book a shelling cruise, take a trip to Masonboro Island, or just get up early and start combing the local beaches for the best chances of finding a natural memento of your vacation that will be treasured for years to come.