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Myrtle Beach Area Features

Secret Weapons for Seashell Hunters

  By: Anna Marlis Burgard

Anna Marlis Burgard, author of The Beachcomber’s Companion, shares pro tips on finding, collecting, cleaning and displaying shells.

The treasures we find at the beach are all elements of an ocean’s story; the shoreline is the introduction where we meet some of its characters and are given clues to their far-reaching communities. With spherical to triangular to fancifully swirling homes, mollusks are architects of the sea. Fluted ribs, spikes and turreted spires, decorated with stripes, plaids or spots: it’s no wonder that these sculptural wonders inspired such a range of uses: cowries as currency, scallops as hide scrapers, and conchs as trumpets for military and spiritual ceremonies are but a few forms of seashell “recycling.”It isn’t only shells that we find at the beach: the waves also bring driftwood, sea glass, and other manmade objects ashore. You never know what you’ll find, which is part of what makes the moseying such a pleasure. Your pirate’s bounty may be made from calcium carbonate, but seashells are gold all the same—tangible reminders of the beach’s beauty and the time shared with loved ones. Here are some tips to make the hunt more satisfying.

Find

Having collected shells from more than 100 U.S. islands, I'm often asked what my hunting strategy is. It boils down to location, conditions and competition. Common wisdom suggests the following as the most opportune times: early beachcombers catch the shells—get out there at dawn, especially if it’s also low tide; following storms or high winds; off season, weekdays versus weekends. Check the wrack line from higher tides, too—gems are often hidden among reeds and seaweed. There’s also the eagle’s eye condition: some people can just spot shells more easily than others, or certain kinds—my eyes go to baby’s ears, but I’ve never found a shark’s tooth, for instance.

Common sense tips: Stick to clear, designated paths to avoid trampling dune grasses or disturbing nests, or trespassing. This is also for your own safety; snakes, and other potentially dangerous creatures can be in leaf litter and dunes. Take precautions if you go night shelling. Don’t go in the water farther than up to your ankles; you might not be able to see things you should avoid, like sharks and rays. Mark the site on the beach where you came off a path; in the dark, it’s very difficult to tell one beach access from another—a simple stack of driftwood or some other sign will do. Pay attention to where you’re stepping: holes dug for sandcastles can land you in the hospital with a broken ankle.

Never, ever take a live creature or plant from the beach. In addition, there are a number of beaches that prohibit taking any shells or sea glass at all, while others impose limits on how many shells each person can take. Make sure you know the rules before you become attached to something you can’t keep. And try to be selective about the shells you take home. Hermit crabs and other creatures need those shells, too!

Collect

It’s easy to pack an inexpensive “kit” of small, light items to help collect and protect your shells so you can keep your hands free on the beach and enjoy your finds once back home. I carry a mesh lingerie bag when I’m hunting, with a pill bottle in it for very small shells. The mesh fabric allows me to rinse them all off at once when I’m done collecting. I also pack a nail brush for basic cleaning, a plastic food container with cotton batting to transport fragile shells home, sealable sandwich bags for less fragile shells and sand samples, and a pair of athletic socks for covering larger shells like whelks in my luggage so they don’t snag clothes. Don’t forget to pack water shoes to protect your feet from sharp shell edges, glass shards, stingrays buried in the sand in shallow water, sea urchin spines, pinching crabs, and so on. And don’t forget your hat and sunscreen!

Clean

There are a number of ways to give your shells a face-lift. If the “bones” are good—that is, the shell is intact—it’s worth the effort to bring out its glory. Shells needing lighter work might respond to a toothpaste and baking soda scrub. Start off by washing the shells in soapy water to remove dirt, sand, and debris. Use a nail- or toothbrush to clean as much dirt, sand, and debris off and out as possible, and run water through the shell as forcefully as possible.

If pieces of the animal remain in the shell, you have a stinky situation on your hands. I’ve used tweezers to pull out whatever I could, but the stench remained. The consensus seems to be boiling the shell until the last bits float out, and the smell backs off. Other people bury the shell and let insects do their work, then leave the shell outside for a while to air out. Still others suggest a vinegar and baking soda bath.

Check out my book for additional tips on cleaning shells including bleach bath ratios and muriatic acid dip timings, how to use dental picks to pry off barnacles, how to clean fragile shells like sand dollars, and more.

Display

I keep my shells in vintage Mason jars, and my sand samples in test tubes, in an old laboratory’s copper holder. I’ve seen people use typesetters’ letter trays to show their shells off, and others who simply line windowsills with them, top stacks of books with prize specimens, or keep them in lighted china cabinets. You can frame them against sandpaper in shadow boxes, put them inside vintage gumball machines, or display them in bird baths. Whelks and conchs are sometimes used as flower garden edging on islands, and super crafty people make shell flowers and other mementos from their finds. I sometimes glue them to gift box ribbons, and every now and then I attempt to make Christmas ornaments from them. There are many fun ways to bring the beach inside with your shells!

Anna Marlis Burgard’s work has been featured on Atlas Obscura, BBC Radio and NPR and in Garden & Gun, The New Yorker, and Real Simple. Her books The Beachcomber’s Companion: An Illustrated Guide to Collecting and Identifying Beach Treasures (Chronicle Books, 2018) and Shrimp Country: Recipes and Tales from the Southern Coasts are available online as well as through local book and gift stores throughout the country. Visit www.islandsofamerica.com to learn more about her travels to more than 100 of the U.S.’s 17,000 islands.

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