Cape Lookout National Seashore | SHELLING

Shells on the South Core Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore

Shells on the South Core Banks, part of Cape Lookout National Seashore

I took my vehicle to South Core Banks on a weekday in early September. As I drove down the beach I kept an eye out for interesting things that had washed up on the shore. I first came to a dead shark that somebody had shot in the head to kill, which was sad but still interesting. A few moments later I came to what I had only seen in souvenir stores up until that time: a large seashell, what I term a “conch shell,” though they are actually whelk shells. I was so excited that I called my wife to tell her. What a perfect gift to bring back to my daughter, Sasha. As I continued my drive south towards the lighthouse complex I found another one. Then another. And another. It was like picking up spare change. By the end of the day I didn’t even bother to look at them, as I had a car load and wondered exactly what I was going to do with them all. At one point I found twenty in a ten-foot wide circle, almost as if another guy like me had decided he had collected too many and just dumped them back onto the seashore.

Whelk shell on the beach of South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Whelk shell on the beach of South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

South Core Banks has the most shells that I have ever seen on a beach. At times they were so thick that driving over them sounded like I was driving on gravel. I tried to avoid them, but sometimes they stretched the entire width of the beach and there was no choice but to run them over. There are millions, if not billions of them on the beach. Most are just colorful “clam” shells, as I call them, but there are plenty of whelk shells and sand dollars as well. North Core Banks has a decent amount, but if shells are what you are after, stick to South Core Banks. You can even take a reasonably-priced passenger ferry to the island for a day trip. However, keep in mind that you will be combing the same beaches as everyone else. With a vehicle (4-Wheel Drive only), you can cover the entire beach, and it was in the remote areas where I found all of the whelk shells.

Abundant shells at South Core Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore

Abundant shells at South Core Banks in Cape Lookout National Seashore

The day before, I had gone over on the passenger ferry to Shackleford Banks to see the wild horses. I was the only one going there; the rest of the passengers were going to Cape Lookout. When I returned, most of the group ended up on the same boat as I did. Most had gone to the beach and many now had coveted sand dollars that they found near Cape Point, the actual tip of the island.

I did not visit the west end beaches at Shackleford Banks where people go to swim, so I can’t report on the shelling there. I was on the east end of Shackleford, and there were no shells to speak of. Since the island runs east to west and doesn’t receive the same pounding of waves as does the northeast- to southwest-oriented South Core Banks, I would be skeptical that Shackleford Banks could out-do South Core Banks when it comes to finding shells.

In most cases it is illegal to take anything from a National Park. However, shelling is different, and each person can take up to two gallons of shells per day for personal use. The only requirement is that the shells be empty and animals such as sea stars and sand dollars be dead.

Whelk shell on the beach of South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

Whelk shell on the beach of South Core Banks, Cape Lookout National Seashore

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Last updated on March 25, 2024
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