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Shelling at Sanibel Island

Shelling at Sanibel Island

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Imagine piles of colorful seashells shimmering on pure white sands, cerulean waters lapping at the coastline. What sounds like an artist's fantastical rendition of paradise is found on Sanibel Island, on Florida's southwest coast. Serious shell collectors and crafters know the secret this paradise holds: its 17 miles of beaches blanketed with more than 200 species of seashells, one of the Earth's largest natural selections.

Unlike most islands, which run parallel to a coast, the Barrier Islands of southwest Florida -- including Sanibel and its sister island, Captiva -- run perpendicular. They extend like a bent finger into the sea, curling into the Gulf of Mexico and into the path of storms, beckoning nature's bounty to come hither. Tidal motions push shells, sand dollars, and other treasures onto the sandy beaches, covering the shore.

Sanibel Island is heralded as one of the world's top shelling destinations, on par with Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The region is also prized for its wildlife; birding and fishing are other popular pursuits. While there's enough to do there, you may wish to take a boat ride to nearby islands, many of which are uninhabited, for a peaceful experience and continued exposure to the natural wonders.

Getting There
Sanibel is located 45 minutes by car from the Southwest Florida International Airport, in Fort Myers, and a few hours from Naples, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa.

Best Times to Go
March is peak season on Sanibel, with activities such as the annual Sanibel Shell Fair and Show. But the shell selection is plentiful year-round. Planning your trip another part of the year will result in better prices and fewer crowds.

What to Bring
Hannah Milman, crafts executive editorial director for Martha Stewart Living and a regular Sanibel visitor since 1993, suggests packing a bucket, a stash of small resealable plastic bags, a hat, sunscreen, and a flashlight. Remember your rain gear, and should it storm during your vacation, consider it a blessing, not a curse: You can expect a greater bounty of shells after a storm.

Timing Your Outing
The best shelling is done at low tide, preferably after a full moon. Check tidal charts, which are posted on signs at many beaches and hotels, as well as at the Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce.

Respect for and preservation of the environment is paramount on Sanibel and Captiva. It is illegal to take "live" shells from these and the surrounding islands. If you discover life in your treasures, return them to the sea.

Caring for Your Collection
Many hotels offer outdoor tables for you to sort your day's find. Be sure to clean your shells and sand dollars before you pack them, rinsing in water until it runs clear. Pack your shells carefully; Hannah often uses an empty tissue box to transport her shells.

Shell Crafting
After you've collected and sorted your shells, you can turn them into wondrous creations. Classes in shell crafting are offered each Monday at the Sanibel Community Center.

The Sanibel Shell Fair and Show, held every March in the historic community house, welcomes artisans, naturalists, and collectors. Visit the Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce for a calendar of events.

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum houses a vast collection of rare shells as well as exhibits relating to the history of shell art. The museum also offers lessons in preservation.

After all of your searching, if you still find your collection incomplete, supplement it with shells in uncommon shapes and colors from any of the island's many shops, including Sanibel Seashell Industries, 239-472-1603; Showcase Shells, 239-472-1971 or; and She Sells Sea Shells, 239-472-6991 or

What Else to Do
The J. N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge, part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States, provides shelter to more than 220 avian species.

CROW, the Center for Rehabilitation of Wildlife, offers educational programs about native and migratory species and their habitats, and cares for injured wildlife found by volunteers and island visitors.

If you're looking for more adventure, Sanibel, Captiva, and the surrounding islands offer unforgettable experiences in camping, water sports, kayaking, bicycling, scuba, snorkeling, and golf.

Text by Michelle Buffardi

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