Southport can easily serve as a launching point for a myriad of shelling adventures. From this small community on the Cape Fear River, visitors can board a ferry to Bald Head Island, Fort Fisher, or even take a cruise to smaller and lesser-known island destinations like Zeke’s Island Reserve. As a result, visitors will find that a myriad of shelling beaches are just a short boat ride (or drive) away, leading to miles of shoreline to explore, and long sun-filled days of combing and enjoying the local beaches.
About Shelling near the Southport Area
Using Southport as a “home base,” visitors will find several beaches in the region that are perfect for a shelling venture.
Bald Head Island – From Southport, visitors can board the Bald Head Island passenger ferry to reach this small island destination that’s bordered by the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. Rent a bike or golf cart once on shore, (there are no cars available or allowed in the area), and head to the “east coast” that faces the Atlantic for the best shelling opportunities. The southernmost point near the Shoals Club is a particularly popular spot for shelling, thanks to its locale that jets out into the ocean, and which connects with the Frying Pan Shoals.
Fort Fisher – A second ferry that departs from Southport – the NCDOT managed Southport/Fort Fisher Ferry – will take visitors to the southern end of Pleasure Island, which is also a popular destination for shelling explorers and beach fans of all varieties. The Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is a good place to start, as this stretch of shoreline extends for roughly six miles and has no development whatsoever. Don’t forget to (carefully) check along the rock wall borders close to the oceanfront, which can have tidal pools filled with barely-hidden treasures.
Zeke’s Island Reserve – Located just south of Fort Fisher, visitors can reach this isolated island destination on foot, with a 4WD vehicle, or via a motorized vessel or kayak. The Zeke’s Island Reserve is actually a collection of islands, but beachcombers will likely have the best luck on the “main” Zeke’s Island, which boasts the most ocean-facing beaches, and which gets more isolated and less populated the further south a beachcomber wanders.
Oak Island / Caswell Beach – Located just a 10-15 minute drive away from the heart of Southport, depending on the traffic, Oak Island / Caswell Beach is arguably the easiest shelling destination to reach for regional visitors. The towns have multiple beach access points for public day-trippers, as well as wide and gently sloping shorelines that make it easier for delicate shells to wash ashore intact. These beaches are at their least crowded in the fall, winter, and spring months, when beachcombers can sometimes have long stretches of shoreline all to themselves.
Types of Shells in the Southport Region
Once you land on the local Bald Head Island, Fort Fisher, or Oak Island beaches, there are quite a few treasures to uncover. Keep your eye out for these shells which include both rare and common varieties, and which are worth keeping as a natural souvenir.
Whelks – Commonly mistaken as conchs, whelks are traditionally larger shells that are striking in appearance, thanks to their conical shape, large opening, and spiral top that can have small spikes or perfectly circular wide channels, depending on the species. There are three types of whelks that wash ashore – lightning whelks, knobbed whelks, and channel whelks – which can all come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. Whelks can measure anywhere from 1-2” to 16” long, and are often found close to the ocean wash after a storm.
Sand dollars – Sand dollars are not technically a shell, but they are one of the most prized finds along the North Carolina coastline, and are arguably easiest to find, (though not exactly common), in the lower Cape Fear region. These circular treasures are known for their central “star” shape, and are often found on beaches that have small or no waves and a gradually sloping shoreline, due to their inherently delicate nature. The white sand dollars are the most treasured finds, although visitors may also come across brown or green sand dollars that appear “furry.” These sand dollars may still be alive, so it’s best to leave them behind.
Olive shells – The olive shell is a smaller conical shell that has a skinny body, a long opening, and a tight spiral at the very top. These shells can measure anywhere from 1” to 3” long at the absolute most, and are known for their unique patterns and colors. A “fresh” olive shell is shiny with a violet interior, and has an almost checkered pattern in shades of brown and beige. Always striking, an olive shell is an enticing find that can be found in sound and ocean waters throughout the year.
Moon snails / shark’s eye – Moon snails are another somewhat common find of the spiral variety. These shells are perfectly circular, with a wide spiral that narrows before it reaches the very middle, often creating a slightly different colored “shark’s eye.” These shells can measure anywhere from .5” to 3-4” wide or even more, and are commonly found along ocean-facing beaches throughout the year.
Ear shells – Ear shells are small .5” to 1” shells that literally look like an ear, with a flat body and a small spiral in the top center of the shell. These shells are traditionally stark white, (depending on the local sediment), and are often spotted in piles of shells and / or freshly washed up with a low or high tide.
Coquinas – Coquinas are easily the most colorful shell along the sand, as these tiny bivalve clams literally come in a world of colors that can range from yellow and brown to bright violet and blue. These shells often wash up with a tide, and live varieties can sometimes be spotted along the ocean wash, digging in and out of the sand by the hundreds. Try to catch this phenomenon when it occurs, (they’ll be close to the breaking waves), because the overall effect really is spectacular.
Scallops – There are two types of scallops that wash up along the area beaches – calico and bay scallops. Both varieties are common along the local beaches, and also feature roughly the same shape and size, (measuring just .5” to 2.5” at most), but the calico scallop is often the preferred find simply because of its pretty pattern of light pink and red specks. Look for these shells everywhere! They wash up on all area shorelines, at all times of the year.
Augers, oyster drillers, wentletraps – Beachcombers with a good eye can watch for these tiny spiral shells that may be miniscule, (measuring just 1” at most), but which are truly ornate and beautiful treasures. These smaller shells can often be found in piles of shells, rocks, and sediment that wash up close to shore.
Arc shells, jackknife clams, and other bivalves – A wide range of bivalve shells, or clams, regularly wash up along the beaches, and are the most common find for many shell seekers. These shells can range from delicate keepers like arc shells or angel wings, to unique finds like the iridescent pen shells that turn a rainbow of colors in the light. As one would expect, these shells are everywhere, and the tasty and live variety of clams can often be spotted in the shallow river and sound waters, just below the surface.
Tips and Tricks for Southport Area Shelling
- The best time for shelling is typically after a hurricane or storm. After a tropical system or even a nor’easter passes through the area, shells can wash up by the hundreds on the local beaches, which can include a variety of rare and uncommon finds.
- The off-season months are also a great time for shelling, simply because of the limited population. Try a fall trip, when the weather is warm enough for exploring the beaches, and the likelihood of storms which produces even more shells increases.
- Early birds do get the best finds, especially on crowded beaches! Try to plan an early morning trip for “first dibbs” on shells that have washed up the night before.
- The best time for shelling on any given day is after a low or high tide. Check the local tide tables online, or pick up a tide chart at a local bait and tackle store.
- Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! Delicate shells can often be found in small piles of seaweed and debris after a storm, so be sure and root around to see if there are any buried treasures.
- A little wading can go a long way, especially on more crowded summer beaches like Caswell Beach or Oak Island. Wander 2-3’ ft. out into the water, and start shuffling your feet to look for shells that may be hidden just beneath the surface. (Just watch for other area residents, like blue crabs or local flounder.)
- A kayaking adventure along the soundside / river waters can result in some unique finds as well, such as clams, periwinkles, and even a few olive shells. Explore the marshes and waters of Zeke’s Island Reserve for the best results.
- “Shelling tours” may be available through local boat tour companies and inshore charter businesses. These tours will take visitors to desolate beaches where the shelling is at its best.
- Want more access to the local beaches? Consider a vacation rental. Bald Head Island and Caswell Beach / Oak Island both have hundreds of vacation rentals that are often just a short stroll away from the oceanfront. As a result, visitors can enjoy exceptional shelling, all year long.
Shelling is a fun adventure for coastal visitors of all ages, and Southport can be a great launching point simply because of its proximity to ferries, beaches, islands, and all of the above.
Board a ferry to the local beaches, or take a drive to Oak Island, and discover why beachcombing is a pastime that is celebrated by locals and visitors alike. With so many beaches to go around, you never know what you’re going to find when you head out to the local shorelines that surround Southport.