Shelling on Tybee with Dr. Joe

A group of seashells from shelling on Tybee laying on the sand.

Shelling on Tybee

When I’m out on the beach doing a Tybee Beach Ecology Trip, I will frequently get asked “when are the best times” or “where are the best places for finding shells on Tybee.” My answer generally goes something like this. When it comes to shelling, Tybee is weird! You never know where you’ll find good sections of the beach for shells. Often you’ll walk down the beach and there will be few shells, but if you keep walking you may well get to a section where there are a bunch of shells washed up. But after the next tide cycle, the shell deposits maybe somewhere else!

As our local surfers know, we generally get our biggest, strongest waves near the time of high tide, so that is the time when the water is moving faster and stronger toward the beach. It takes faster moving water to transport and carry the bigger, heavier shells. So the larger objects and shells are going to be moved and carried onto the beach when the water is moving fastest. As a result, the larger shells are going to be up near the high tide line.

But there are exceptions to this general situation. The biggest, heaviest Whelk shells are often too heavy to be washed up onto the beach, so they tend to lay around offshore and they gradually move toward shore during storms and rough surf. As they roll around, some of them get trapped within the rock jetties at the south and north ends of the island. So these jetties can sometimes be productive places for finding larger shells when the rocks are exposed, especially if sand is eroding out of the rocks. But it’s very important for you to know that it is against the law to climb on the rocks, and this is for your own safety. Those rocks are covered with barnacles and oysters, and their shells are sharp. Also, you will want to check to be sure that there isn’t a Hermit Crab inside any shells. They like to live inside Whelk and Moon Snail shells, and it seems to me that they always pick the nicest ones!

My wife, Jackie, gave me some great advice about finding Lettered Olive shells. They are her favorite, and she is really good at finding them. She taught me that when you find an Olive shell, to stop and look carefully in that same area, and you may well find a few of them. As I think about it, this makes good sense. With their unique but similar shape, dimensions and density, Olive shells are going to roll and move around in the water until the speed is just right for them to settle out. As a result, the moving water in the surf zone will gradually gather them together and they will ultimately get deposited close to one another.

Here’s one other general tip. You are likely to find better shell deposits along areas of the beach where the slope is gradual or flatter. The flatter, wider beach provides the best conditions for shells to settle out as the tide falls. Because Tybee’s beach sand moves around a lot, wide flat areas move around depending on surf conditions. Also, consider searching areas where the wave energy is lower such as near the north end or south end inlets. Along these calmer parts of the beach, you will have a better chance of finding some of the more fragile shells like Duck Clams, Pen Shells, Razor Clams, and Angel Wings.

So my recommendations are to go whenever you feel like it and to try different areas of the beach. Tybee’s beach is constantly changing as are the shell deposits. Some days will be good, and other days it will just be good exercise.

Dr. Joe Richardson (Ph.D. Marine Sciences) has more than 40 years of research and teaching experience along GA, the southeastern coast and Bahamas. Currently, along with his research, he conducts Tybee Beach Ecology Trips ( and will frequently post pictures and information about their findings on his Tybee Beach Ecology

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