Shelling in Delaware


Walking the Eastern Shore and Delaware clean beaches is relaxing and rewarding. As you stroll along the shore your eyes instinctively are drawn to objects in the sand. Before you know it you are addicted to collecting nature’s little treasures - Shells. Shells are the outer layer of protection For soft living animals called mollusks. Mollusks build their homes in an wide variety of colors. Their homes are of all shapes and sizes and come in beautiful colors. From the shallow bays to the deep off shore waters, the Eastern Shore is home to over 100 different species of shells.

The State Parks in Southern Delaware, Cape Henlopen State Park and down to the south on Assateague Island offers good hunting grounds for many shells. Sandbars out in the surf just below the waterline and jetties are good collecting places for shells. In the high tide line where the seaweed is deposited is a good place to find small shells. The inner tidal flats, calm bays, lagoons and "mud" flats harbor a number of species of shells if you are up for some digging to find your treasures. Many animals spend most of their time buried in this soft sand or mud for protection. Early in the morning after a storm or a high tide is the best time to find your treasures before the beach cleaners and sunbathers hit the beach. Also one hour before and after low tide is daily usually a good time.

Starfish and seashores are out there searching the shallow waters for their early morning meal. In the spring and fall sometimes thousands wash up along our shores. Whelks can be found in the shallow waters, on mud flats and grassy bottoms especially in the state parks. Empty whelks can be found along the shore with pieces of deep purple wampum, which was once used as money for trade by the Local American Indians. A local sanddollar can be buried just below the sand if you look carefully and dig softly.

When you find a shell you are finding the outer skeletons of a mollusks, animals without backbones. The shell was once their protective cover. The mollusks are divide into two basic groups: univalves, one piece shells usually a spiral shape and bivalves, two shells hinged together.  In many cases, fresh dead shells, minus the animals’ soft parts are as good or even better than shells collected live and have the advantage that you do not have the difficult job of removing the mollusks soft parts.

Some species of shells are slow moving and rather sluggish and may even play possum when picked up. If you see an operculum or the door to the opening closed tightly you can be sure there is a mollusk in the shell. This is part of the shell and should be kept with it if you’re a specimen collector. If the bivalve is tightly closed that also has the animal mollusk in the shell. Oh, by the way, don’t let the words “specimen shell” scare you. It only means the best quality available for a shell.  The best shelling time is one hour before and after low tide. 


We will be happy to get you started on your shell collection. If you have any questions or need assistance in your shell collecting you can email us at or check out our site full of free information at

*A note of caution- should you be shelling in an area where live shells abound- take care not to disturb the habitat. Put rocks back in place the way you found them. Something may be live under them and just be out for the day. Avoid taking immature specimens (easily identifiable by their thin brittle shell, unfinished edges or size). Allow these babies to mature and reproduce and thus protect the species. Remember leave nothing but footprints...

Good Luck and Good Shelling