One of our favorite beach activities is collecting seashells! They’re a great reminder of time spent at the beach! You can find shells here year-round, but the best times are after a storm, early morning, or late evening; particularly, an hour before and an hour after low tide.
Here’s our Island Life North Carolina shell guide for some of the most common shells you’ll find on North Carolina’s beaches!
Keyhole Sand Dollar: This round sea urchin is tan to light brown and ranges in size from 5 to 6 inches. Its five slots look like keyholes.
Scotch Bonnet: The creamy white-colored shell has yellowish brown squares in rows and 20 spiral grooves on the body. It ranges in size from 1.5 to 4 inches. The Queen Helmet is a giant version of the Scotch Bonnet that can be as big as 10 inches. Its shell is mostly cream-colored outside with a rich chocolate brown interior. The lip, also called the shield, is large and contains 10 “teeth.”
Coquina Clam: Generally less than 2.5 cm (1 inch) in length, and is characterized by its smooth surface and its dual shell. They can range in color from orange to brown, to purple, or pink with banded white or cream stripes.
Soft Shelled Clam: This clam is found living approximately 6–10 in (15–25 cm) under the surface of the mud. These shells are very thin and easily broken, hence the name “soft-shells.” They can be white, cream, brown, gold, or gray.
Banded Tulip: This smooth, gracefully shaped beauty has a moderately thin shell. Colors range from pearly gray with splotches of olive green or tan. It may also have dark brown bands in parallel lines around the shell, and can be from 2 to 4 inches.
Atlantic Bay Scallop: The shell of an Atlantic bay scallop is broadly fan shaped with more than 14 radial ribs. They usually have a molted pattern incorporating dark grey, black, or brown with orange, red, or yellow hues
Calico Scallop: This species grows up to three inches in maximum width, and is similar in shape and sculpturing to the Atlantic bay scallop. Both valves of the shell are cupped. The stripes are often more pronounced on the Calico and the colors feature pinks, reds, purples, oranges, and browns.
Lightning Whelk: This grayish-white shell has uneven purple-brown streaks and can be recognized by its left-handed spiral. It can range in size from 4 to 16 inches.
Lettered Olive: The shell can be about 6 cm (2½ in) long (maximum size reaches 9.1 cm). It is a smooth, shiny, cylindrical shaped shell with a short spire. The shell coloration can vary from cream to a greyish exterior with reddish-brown zigzag markings.
Saw Tooth Pen Shell: Look for this rough-and-tumble shell after a winter storm. Also thin and fragile, it has a 6- to 10-inch shell that’s ridged and colored a deep, smoky brown.
Atlantic Jackknife Clam: This shell is most noted for its length. It is primarily a silver, gray color and is shaped like a straight razor. Also know as a razor clam, it gets its name from the rim of the shell being extremely sharp.
Moon Snail: The carnivorous creature that left behind this shell consumed three-to-four small clams per day. A moon snail shell measures 2 to 3.5 inches, has four or five whorls, and is typically lead gray with a glossy finish.