Posted on 6/20/2022

Guide to Shelling in the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks' is a treasure trove for avid seashell hunters. Out of all of the things to do in the Outer Banks, shelling is perhaps one of our most popular pastimes. How could it not be with miles of shoreline to explore and plenty of beaches left untouched? There are piles of shells just waiting to be found. Shelling in the Outer Banks is just a matter of being at the right place at the right time and just a little bit of luck.

OBX Shelling: Common Shells on North Carolina Beaches

You will find a variety of different shells washed up on our North Caroline beaches. Some are more common than others. Here are some of the common seashells on the OBX you will want to keep an eye out for.

  • Scotch Bonnet
  • Whelks
  • Olive Shell
  • Clam
  • Scallops
  • Moon Snails
  • Auger Shells
  • Keyhole Sand Dollars
  • Shark Teeth (bonus find)
Seashells washed ashore on a beach in the Outer Banks.
Seashells washed ashore on a beach in the Outer Banks.

Best Time to Go Shelling in the Outer Banks

Virtually any stretch of beach you visit can have an abundance of seashells. However, to give yourself a competitive edge, there are specific times you will want to take advantage of. This will help increase the likelihood of finding the rarest shells.

  • Early Morning. The earlier you can get to the beach, the higher probability you have of finding shells. This will give you the best chance to find rare shells before everybody else.
  • Low Tide. Perhaps the best time to find shells is just before and right after low tide. During high tide, a variety of shells are brought inland. This leaves these beautiful finds once the tide recedes. Be sure to check tide charts to ensure you visit a beach at the right time.
  • After a storm. A great time to find shells is after a storm. Typically, we recommend visiting the beach a day or so after a storm has passed. Furthermore, try to visit once the incoming waves have calmed down. Just a few steps in and you'll notice a plethora of shells just waiting to be picked up!
  • Off-season. If you are worried about not having the opportunity to find shells while other tourists are in the area, come visit us during the off-season. Typically, the best times are between the months of October through April. There are better opportunities to find different shell varieties without having to compete with other people on the beach.

 Best Shelling on the OBX: How to Find Shells

woman walking on the beach shelling at low tide
A woman walking on the beach. shelling at low tide.

One of the best things about beaches on the OBX is that you can find plenty of shells practically anywhere. You just need to look under the right conditions.

  • Sift through the seaweed Another great way to find shells is to get your hands dirty and dig through some seaweed. Typically, when shells wash up on shore, they do not come alone. They tend to be mixed in with piles of seagrass and seaweed. Sift through these grasses and you may stumble upon a great shell find.
  • Explore shallow water. Just off the shoreline in approximately 1 to 2 inches of water or just a little past ankle deep is another potential trove for seashells. Use a small net to scoop out sections of sand and catch shells before they are scattered by other incoming waves. Using a net, you may come across periwinkles, scallops, clams and olive shelves if you are lucky.
  • Scour the inlets. Known for being close to the sound and ocean currents, inlets can be a great place to find a variety of shell varieties. Shelling can be very good by the Oregon Inlet beaches, and especially near the 4WD accessible beaches on the northern side of the inlet. Shelling is also good at the dredge spoil islands in the middle of the inlet, which can be reached by a boat or kayak. Typically, the best inlets to check for shells include:
    • Oregon Inlet-near the southern end next to the original Coast Guard Station to reach the beach on foot
    • Hatteras Inlet
    • Ocracoke Inlet

Best Shelling Beaches on the OBX

A Scotch Bonnet seashell on the outer banks
A Scotch Bonnet seashell on the outer banks.

On the OBX, there are some beaches that are better than others when it comes to shelling. Of course, these beaches can change on a whim, especially with the changes in ocean currents and sandbars constantly forming and dissipating. As a rule of thumb, try to stick with beaches without a known drop off. In addition, keep to south facing beaches where the ocean brings in more tropical shell species.

In general, we recommend staying away from beaches such as the northern Currituck beaches and the southern Outer Banks beaches. You will want to make sure you visit beaches such as the 4WD beaches of Carova, Coquina Beach, Irene's Inlet, South Beach, Frisco Beach, Hatteras beach, Ocracoke Island, and the Outer Banks piers. Be sure to check out our Beach Access Map for a full list of accessible beaches. 

  • Coquina Beach-If you can't resist a splash of color, then take a visit to Coquina Beach, located just along NC Highway 12. Approximately 8 miles south of Nags Head town borders and part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, shellers will find plenty of coquina clams along the sand of this beach. The best time to visit this beach is between late May to early September, where you can watch as thousands of coquinas shimmy their way to the surface before scurrying back beneath the sand.
  • Irene's Inlet-This is another great beach to visit to find shells along the oceanside and soundside beaches. Here, shellers are likely to find Quahogs and scallops in heaps. These shells are perfect to find for those who want to make shell ornaments or containers full of previously found shells.
  • South Beach-This southern facing beach is the best place for shelling, hands down. Even though it is only open seasonally, South Beach  resides in the perfect area between Labrador and Gulf Stream currents. Typically, this beach is deserted so you will have plenty of chances to find those rarer shells such as conchs, whelks and even Scotch Bonnets.
  • Frisco Beach & Hatteras Beach-these beaches are classified by their shallow ocean floor, which allows shells from the ocean to wash up on shore without any scratches or abrasions upon their surfaces. Visit these beaches right after low tide to find some truly incredible finds such as augers, olive shells and whelks.
  • The Outer Banks Piers-due to the structure of the pier, small clusters of smaller shells can wash up on the shore. Keep in mind, virtually any pier along the Outer Banks will do. However, because of their accessibility, be prepared to look for shells through piles of shells that have already been picked through.

There is no better adventure to take with the family than shelling on the Outer Banks. Regardless of what kind of shells you find, we know you will have fun finding them. Shells can be great for home décor, showcasing a special memento from your vacation or to use for crafts. We know you'll love it!

Joe Lamb Jr. & Associates is one of the most trusted vacation rental managers in the local area by growing into a market leader in the Vacation Rental and Sales Industry. Joe Lamb Jr. and his family have played a vital and intricate role in the Outer Banks Community for decades.

Over the past 50+ years, Joe Lamb Jr. & Associates have worked diligently to help promote the Outer Banks for the amazing beach and family vacation destination that it is, helping to increase tourism in the area and grow our beautiful community.