Shell Hunting on Topsail Island



If you’re visiting Topsail Island, chances are you’re planning on hunting for treasures that turn up in the tides. I’m sure you already know the beaches of North Carolina offer some of the greatest shell hunting opportunities in the world. The best times to find these treasures are early in the morning before other beachcombers have had a chance to hit the beaches and a few hours before and after low tide when the water is calmer and more beach is exposed. Bring something in which to hold your finds and wear plenty of sunscreen. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re having fun! Good luck as you go shell hunting on Topsail Island!

Here’s a guide to help you identify the things you may find.


Scotch Bonnet (North Carolina’s state shell) This shell resembles a traditional Scottish cap or bonnet and is egg-shaped with patterned yellow, orange or brownish spots. It measures 1.5 – 4 inches. They are found in North Carolina’s waters and as far south as Brazil.



Channel Whelk and Knobbed Whelk – Whelks are large marine snails with buff gray or light tan, spiral shells. Their shells tend to be from 5 to 8 inches long and are sometimes confused with conchs, which live in tropical waters. Found in waters from Cape Cod to Northern Florida, humans seek these shells out as prized finds! To know more about the Channel Whelk, you can click on to this link:




Olive Shells – Olive shells are oval and cylindrically elongated with a small spire. They have pretty, muted colors and are shiny and smooth. Found all over the world, Olives are 1 – 5 inches long.





Scallop Shells – These are the homes to a number of species of clams and bivalve mollusks. They are found in every ocean worldwide and are common sights on beaches. Beachcombers seek them for their beautiful shape and colors.



Oyster Shells near Bulkhead

Oyster Shells – Not only do humans love oysters, but seabirds do too! They crack them open and leave their shells scattered on the beaches for us. These roughly shapen, hard shells are common finds for shell seekers.




Moon Snail ShellsFound in the sandy, shallow, coastal waters from Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico, these shells can reach up to three inches in diameter. Gray/tan in color, they have several whorls and the centers are often dark blue or purple.



Sand Dollar –  We usually find these round, star patterned treasures washed up on the beach and bleached white or grey by the sun. When they are alive, they are more of a purple color and have tiny, flexible bristles. Leave them alone or throw them back in the water if they are alive.  Read about the legend of the sand dollar here:


Starfish – These beloved treasures live in all the world’s oceans and measure from 4 to 9 inches.The five-arm varieties are the most common and are really not fish at all but related to sand dollars and sea urchins.



Shark Teeth – Did you know that sharks lose around 20,000 teeth in a lifetime? That’s why they are so easy to find!  The dark brown, grey and black ones are fossils and are millions of years old. A modern tooth is white in color. Find them in the 6-12 inch drop-offs along the shoreline.  Would you like to identify your shark’s tooth?





Sea Glass – Broken shards of glass that are tumbled around in the salty sea and surf for many decades are chemically and physically altered. They take on a smooth-edged, frosted look that makes them highly sought after treasures.

Here’s a link to the Topsail Island Tide Charts. Check it to know the best times for seashell and treasure hunting!




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