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The Best Shelling Beaches on the East Coast

Ocracoke Island is a shelling paradise. For its abundance of rare shells, Coastal Living Magazine has named Ocracoke as one of the best shelling beaches in the United States. Shelling enthusiasts could spend a lifetime looking for whelks, moon shells, coquina shells, helmet conchs, olive shells, and periwinkles. Sand dollars regularly wash onto Ocracoke’s beaches and the Scotch Bonnet, the rare state shell of North Carolina, is often found in abundance on Ocracoke Island.

Ocracoke Island Shelling

Top Shelling Beaches on Ocracoke Island

Shelling on Ocracoke is a popular island activity. Pristine uncrowded beaches are full of shells and beachcombers can easily find their own slice of sand to search for shells. The best time to find shells on Ocracoke Island is at low tide and in the morning before other visitors have had the chance to find prized shells. After a storm or hurricane, when the wind shifts to the east, the shelling is particularly good.

South Point 

Located on the southern end of Ocracoke Island, South Point is a great place to find sand dollars and a particular echinoid that has a five-petal design and bleaches white when dry. If you’re lucky you may even find a perfectly coiled sea horse that has been carried north along the Gulf Stream.

Ocracoke's Northern Beaches

Less frequently visited, the northern beaches of Ocracoke Island, are the perfect place to get away from the crowds and find rare shells. In the winter, you will find expanses of sand with no one around except birds and sea life.

Ocracoke Island Shelling

Portsmouth Island

Located just south of Ocracoke across the Pamlico Sound, Portsmouth Island, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, is full of shells. Visitors can return from Portsmouth with tons of whelks, scotch bonnets and lettered olives. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds and enjoy empty beaches full of magnificent shells, Portsmouth Island is well worth the visit.

Ocracoke Island Shelling

Ocracoke Island & Outer Banks Shell Identification

The Scotch Bonnet

Resembling a classic Scottish cap, the Scotch Bonnet is an egg-shaped shell with square-shaped spots of yellow, orange, or brown. It is roughly 2 to 4 inches in length. 

Whelks

Ranging in size and often confused with conchs, whelks are very common on the beaches of the Outer Banks. The lightning whelk is the largest and can grow to over 14" long. The knobbed whelk is exactly like the lightning whelk except it has a right-sided opening instead of a left-oriented one. And the channeled whelk has deeply channeled spirals instead of the spiny spirals. Whelks range widely in colors and sizes. You can find a brightly colored 2" whelk or a 14-16" giant shell. There are an infinite variety of whelks on the shores of Ocracoke Island.

Whelk Shells on Ocracoke Island

Coquina Clam Shells

The remnants of coquina clams, these bright shells come in many sizes. These multi-colored, small shells have beautiful patterns and endless intricacy.

Queen Helmet Conchs

One of the prized shells of the Outer Banks, Queen Helmet Conchs are beautiful and rare. Helmet conchs have a large opening, with bright pink or red lips that are lined with small teeth. The Queen Helmet Conch is quite large and heavy and can grow to longer than a foot. Found sparingly on the south facing beaches, the Queen Helmet Conch is Ocracoke Island treasure.

Conch Shell

Periwinkles

Small and spiral-shaped, periwinkles are common shells that are usually a gray-brow color. Periwinkles, often referred to simply as winkles, have six to seven coils with fine wrinkles.

Coquina Clam Shells

The remnants of coquina clams, these bright shells come in many sizes. These multi-colored, small shells have beautiful patterns and endless intricacy.

Olive Shells

Smooth and shiny, olive shells are cylindrically shaped and have a well-developed stepped spire. Olive shells are usually muted in color but extremely glossy. Olive shells have a distinct shape and make for great Ocracoke souvenirs.

Shelling on Ocracoke

Thank you for your interest in shelling on Ocracoke Island and the Outer Banks. The magic of the shelling is found when you look closely.

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