Posted by: ktzefr | July 7, 2011

Collecting seashells by the seashore…

I’ve been collecting seashells for years.  I started with shells I found along beaches on the Eastern Shore —    scallops, oysters, jackknife clams.  Mostly what came ashore were fragments, and to find a smooth, purple, unusually-shaped piece of a quahog was a treat.   The Seashell City shop was about the only place to find whole shells intact.

In the US Virgin Islands I’ve found interesting bits of coral, but not many shells.  I did, however, discover this enormous conch while swimming at Hawksnest Bay on St. John.  It was lying on the bottom in about five feet of water.  Yes, the water really is this clear!

We looked, snapped a photo, and put the shell back where I had found it (the animal was still very much alive).

A few years ago on a family trip to the British Virgin Islands we discovered a treasure trove of tiny shells.  There were millions strewn along the shoreline on one of the small, mostly uninhabited, islands and easy to collect while snorkeling in only a few feet of water.  They were the tiniest, most perfect shells I had ever seen.  I’ve tried to identify them, but the small ones sometimes do not look like the more mature shells they would have become.   13 of these shells = one teaspoon!

Here are a few guesses…

A cone shell?  The Glory-0f-the-Atlantic?  Sozon’s Cone?  There are about 400 species of cone shells and most are in the Indo-Pacific, though some 50 species are found in the Americas.  They’re carnivores — eating worms and small fish.  A few in the Indian Ocean can inflict fatal stings.  On closer inspection, these also look like the Butterfly Cone, which is the young version of the Prometheus Cone, but they are found in West Africa.  I don’t think a tiny thing like this would have washed ashore in the Caribbean, but the dust clouds make it all the way from the Sahara Desert to the Virgins, so who knows.

These tiny shells, looking large alongside a cherry-flavored Hershey’s Kiss, are probably Moon Snails.  The Moon Snail drills a neat hole through the shell of its prey and sucks out the meat!

The cowrie’s “smile” is easy to identify, even in its miniature form (about the size of one of the peanuts inside this nutshell).  Cowrie shells are glossy like good china.  They were once used by primitive peoples as money, ornaments, and religious symbols.

Lots of little limpets surround a tea light.  The Keyhole Limpets are named for the small hole at the top of the shell, which serves for excretion.  Limpets are vegetarian.  (The two shells without the keyhole are bivalves — cockles or clams?)

Only one of many!  (This is a small wooden match from a restaurant matchbox.)

Looks like a big bowl of Olive shells, but this talavera dish is not much bigger than a coaster.  Some of the shells have bits of coral stuck inside.  They are mostly white, though some have markings and a few have a purplish tint, especially inside the “mouth.”  The Purple-Mouthed Olive is common in the Indo-Pacific, so I’m not sure how zillions of these ended up on the beach in the Caribbean.  I suspect they’re distant cousins.

Seven shells in the center of a CD.  These are so pretty (the shells; the CD is actually pretty, too), but I’m not sure what they are.  They look a little like the Triton Trumpets.  In the larger species people cut off the end of the spire and make a round hole in the side to create a trumpet.  Read HERE about Triton, the fish-tailed sea god and son of Poseidon, who stilled the waves with the blow of a conch-shell trumpet.  LISTEN.


This one is smaller than a matchbox, but the larger varieties of the West Indian Top are yummy in chowder.  (Check out this delicious coconut seafood chowder from the West Indies.)

Speaking of yummy stuff…well, on second thought, maybe yummy isn’t the right word!


At least a dozen more of these miniature shells could fit on the lid of the moonshine jar (from Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, Tennessee).  Perhaps they are miters, conchs, cones, or snails.  The only one easily identified is the elongated shell on the upper left side of the lid.  It’s an ark shell with the unusual name of West Indian Turkey Wing.  In a much larger size it, too, is good to eat.

I remember walking the Maryland and Delaware shores looking for shells and occasionally finding that rare specimen that hadn’t been broken into a million pieces by the waves.  Sometimes good stuff comes ashore after a storm on the East Coast.  The same is true in the islands.  If there is anything good about a hurricane, tropical storm, or a tropical depression, it’s the stuff that washes ashore — well, almost all the stuff that washes ashore. 

I have a number of Caribbean devotees among my readers, so if you’re heading to the islands this summer, you may enjoy reading about Ms. Myra Peck, shell-collector extraordinaire who lives on St. Thomas.  She talks HERE about the great finds she’s made at Brewers Bay Beach on the grounds of the University of the Virgin Islands.

I love this collection of a zillion tiny, perfect shells.  They remind me that bigger isn’t always better.




  1. One Christmas at Panama City Beach my girls collected sand dollars. When they took them home to Hawai’i, the local kids didn’t know what they were. They wouldn’t even believe the sand dollars were shells until the teacher told them.

    • Sand dollars are pretty. We found a couple once, but they were gray and dingy until a friend told us to bleach them!

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