It’s the geography of Sanibel and Captiva, a pair of islands off the west coast of Florida near Fort Myers, that has made them a destination for shell-picking.
The islands jut west into the Gulf of Mexico, where prevailing northwesterly winds and undercurrents push the shells towards the shores of the islands where they cover the white sand beaches. Seashells are so plentiful they crunch underfoot, and beachgoers quickly discover that it’s wise to wear surf shoes when enjoying activities such as long walks, building sandcastles and elongation in the sun.
The best shelling season is November through March, according to experts from the islands’ Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum.
During my own stay at Sundial Beach Resort and Spa on Sanibel Island, I saw many other guests walking along the water’s edge picking up seashells in the skilled Sanibel Stoop pose. They wore nets and carried mesh bags to scoop up any shells they found, then carried them to the resort’s Seashell Station to be washed and strained through a sieve.
Strike up a conversation and learn that many of these people really know their stuff. They most likely absorbed a lot of information during a visit to the nearby Seashell Museum or a guided beach walk with a marine biologist. These walks are given at low tide on Bunche beach.
The Seashell Museum, an ideal destination for a rainy day, should be considered a must-see for anyone visiting this coast. Learn how to find and identify seashells common in Southwest Florida and how to clean and transport these gifts from the sea. Keeper Chats in the Living Gallery from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. guide visitors to keeping live shellfish in the touch pools.
The nine aquariums that opened in 1995 feature living creatures such as the giant Pacific octopus as well as a giant clam, live junonia, seahorses and many other molluscs, fish and corals.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that cephalopods, like octopuses, are molluscs – in the same phylum as clams and snails. One of the first things I discovered on my visit to the Seashell Museum was that there are more species of molluscs in the world than all mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined.
As a lifelong diver, I have long been fascinated by octopuses, which are shy and often difficult to spot underwater. Sadly, the giant Pacific octopus, with its eight 16-foot suction cup-lined tentacles, that I saw at the Shell Museum died last winter and was replaced by another. They are native to the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest, where I’m unlikely to dive. That’s a good thing, because I don’t think I would want to meet one underwater. The largest giant octopus in the Pacific weighed around 600 pounds
I learned that they are masters of camouflage and can change color quickly when needed. They are highly intelligent, with complex brains and nervous systems that allow them to solve problems and use tools, and they have three hearts and blue blood.
Seashell museum exhibits that I particularly enjoyed included “Seaman’s Valentines,” creations from seashells developed in the 19th century by women in Barbados. They were often brought back by sailors to their loved ones and became a prized art form. Seashells have, it seems, influenced art throughout the centuries.
“Ornamented by the Sea: Fashionable Seashells”, an exhibition until the end of November, shows how seashells have transformed ordinary textiles into extraordinary garments through time and around the world. From expensive snail-based purple dyes to knife-and-mold-based conceptual fantasies, works include designs by Dior, McQueen and Gucci, as well as anonymous indigenous artists.
“Mollusk Hospital: Shell Folk Art Journey in 20 Rooms,” also open through November, brings science and fantasy together in a cluster of 20 imaginative miniature hospital rooms in which hundreds of shells are the patients. Through these recreated hospital environments, visitors learn how molluscs injure themselves and the ingenious methods by which they protect and heal themselves.
Start planning your visit to Sanibel and Captiva with information from the Visitor Bureau at FortMyers-Sanibel.com.
Several airlines fly directly to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) in Fort Myers from Cleveland.
The causeway to Sanibel and Captiva is less than an hour’s drive from the airport. If you’re renting a car, look for accommodation with parking, or be prepared to pay $5 an hour to park at a beach. Neither Uber nor Lyft operate on the islands. Golf cart rentals are also available and the island’s speed limit is 25 mph. Over 22 miles of paved bike paths make cycling the most economical way to get around.
Sanibel is only 12 miles long, while Captiva is only 5 miles long. Many accommodations on the Narrow Islands have water and beach access on both Pine Island Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.
Here are the contacts for some of the places mentioned:
Sundial Beach Resort & Spa, 1451 Middle Gulf Drive, Sanibel; 239-472-4151; sundialresort.com. Accommodations are in fully equipped condominiums of varying sizes with multiple heated swimming pools, tennis courts, a 12-court pickleball stadium, fitness center and more.
Bailey-Matthews National Seashell Museum, 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road, Sanibel; 888-679-6450; ShellMuseum.org. Admission: $23.95 adult; $14.95 youth 12-17, $8.85 children 5-11.
Beach walks with a marine biologist depart at 9 am daily from the Island Inn, 3111 W. Gulf Drive in Sanibel (islandinnsanibel.com). Required reservations can be made at 230-395-2233. They cost $10 for adults and $7 for children. Participants receive a half-price coupon for entry to the Shell Museum.