How to Find the Best Outer Banks Sea Shells

13 favorite Outer Banks shell finds

I can’t go to the beach without bringing home a shell or two.  I just can’t seem to help myself.  I may go to take the dogs for a walk but my pockets will be full of shells or a prime piece of beach glass by the time I get back to the truck.  Most of my finds end up in a glass jar with the larger shells in a big basket on my porch.  After decades of living on the Outer Banks, I have enough shells, but I am still compelled to bring a new find home.

Best Shelling Conditions

The Outer Banks is one of the top beaches for shell collectors.  The variety is superb and ranges from cold water shells to warm water shells due to the gulf stream and Labrador current and the barrier island location.  The “north” facing beaches, north of Buxton, include more cold water shells that can be found in New England.  The “south” facing beaches, south of Hatteras, include more warm water shells that can be found in Florida. 

The new Shelley Island, which recently formed off the Outer Banks this spring is ideally positioned in the north and south currents and is rumored to have great shells all the time.  There is no telling how long the island will survive and visitors are advised to use caution and care in reaching the island.  The rip current and “critters” can make the trip to the island dangerous. 

While I tend to go to the same beach, all the beaches on the Outer Banks can have an abundance of shells with the proper conditions.  Wind and wave conditions can change from day to day and affect the quantity and quality of shells washed ashore.  Beaches without a sharp drop-off tend to have a better distribution of shells. 

My favorite time to go shelling is right after a storm.  It seems treasure always washes up after a storm and there is an abundance of new shells brought to shore.  Sometimes, a day or two delay after a storm will bring more shells to shore during the gentler wave action. 

A hurricane or nor’easter will bring piles of shells onto the beach for the shell seeker to cull through.  The intrepid sheller will dig through piles of seaweed and other debris to locate shells the casual visitor will overlook.  While you may get your hands dirty or slimy with seaweed, the resulting find is usually worth it.  The seaweed helps to protect the delicate shells passage onto the beach.

The best time to hunt for shells is right after low tide before the high tide washes away the new finds.  My best finds have always been in the morning before visitors arrive at the beach. 

Outer Banks Sea Shell Varieties

Scotch Bonnet

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - Scotch Bonnet

The Scotch Bonnet is the official North Carolina State Shell.  Yes, shelling is that important to NC that we have an official shell.  The Scotch Bonnet ranges from 1.5” to 4” long, has a fat middle with brown squares in rows with 20 spiral grooves on the body.  While not a large shell it is relatively rare and a prized find. 




Queen Helmet Conch

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - Queen Helmet Conch

The Queen Helmet Conch is a giant version of the Scotch Bonnet that can get as large as 10’. This shell is mostly cream-colored outside with a rich chocolate brown interior. The lip, also called the shield, is large and contains 10 “teeth”.  This is also a rare find, most often on south facing beaches.

The Whelks

Lightening Whelk

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - Lightening Whelk

The Lightening Whelk can be found anywhere along the Outer Banks.  Basically, it is a sea snail.  It is one of the largest Whelks at 14” or more and is an impressive find just due to its size.  It is unusual since the opening is left oriented and most spiral shells are right oriented.  Color can vary, but typical is grayish white, tan or creamy yellow.  The shell gets its name from its appearance, when young, with chestnut brown stripes that look like a lightning bolt. 




Knobbed Whelk

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - knobbed whelk

The knobbed whelk looks almost the same as a lightning whelk except it has a right oriented opening.  The exterior color can vary from grayish white to tan and the interior color can range from pale yellow to orange.  The shell has low knobs or spines on its shoulder. 






Channeled Whelk

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - channeled whelk

The Channeled Whelk has deep channeled spirals instead of the spiny ones found on the other whelks.  The grayish-white shell has uneven purple brown streaks.   It can range in size from 4 to 16 inches.





Olive Shells

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - olive shells

Olive shells are a conical shaped shell resembling a long pointed tube with a small number of spirals at the top.   The inside can be pink or even dark purple. The outside of the shell, if not lessened by waves, sun and sand, can have intricate patterns of triangles or abstract designs for a gorgeous find.  Most are only 2-3” long.







Outer Banks Shell Varieties - auger

Augers are conical shaped, like screws, with spirals that extend the length of their bodies. 








Oyster Driller

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - Oyster Driller

The Oyster Driller is also conical shaped but resembling a miniature whelks.  Oyster drillers rarely get over 1” in size. 










Outer Banks Shell Varieties - Periwinkle

Periwinkles are also small finds, rarely reaching over an 1″ in size.  They have fat conical bodies that taper off to a small point of spirals.







Moon Snail

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - moon snail

The Moon Snail ranges from 2 to 3.5”.  It has four or five whorls with a glossy finish.







Sundial Shell

Outer Banks Shell Varieties - sundial shell

The sundials resemble a Nautica shell and has a flat, circular shape, with spirals running all the way from the perimeter-located mouth to the center of the shell.  It is a beautiful shell and a wonderful find.









Outer Banks Shell Varieties - coquina

The Coquina shell is so abundant on the Outer Banks, there is even a beach, south of Nags Head named after the shell.  These shells come in a range of colors, from pale purples and pinks to bright yellows and oranges, and can even feature stripes or interesting color combinations. While only 1” long, a shell bed of Coquina is a fabulous sight. 






Outer Banks Shell Varieties - scallops

Scallops feature a range of colors from almost black to pure white. 







No matter where you are staying on the Outer Banks, go to the beach and find a shell souvenir to remind you of your trip.  While you are here visiting, contact Eillu to see how you can own your very own vacation home and collect shells on every visit.   A vacation home can be a very profitable investment, with positive cash flow, that pays dividends with priceless family memories.

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