A Guide to Shelling on the Outer Banks

Learn the different types of shells found on the OBX beaches and where to find them

The Outer Banks’ beaches offer more than just fun in the sun and crashing waves. Beachcombing offers treasures for those that are willing to hunt! Shelling on the Outer Banks delivers fun for the whole family but can also act as a peaceful way to enjoy some time to yourself. Many members of the staff here at Twiddy & Company are avid seashell hunters and we wanted to share our knowledge, tips and finds with you!

Whelk Shell

Is this a Conch or a Whelk Shell?

If you guessed Whelk, then you are right! Whelks are commonly mistaken for conch shells because of their similarities to the conch shells found on Florida beaches including conical shapes and wide openings. Whelks are much more usual to find on the beaches of the Outer Banks than conchs. The three most common types of whelks are the lightning whelk, knobbed whelk and channeled whelk. Once you finish this short shell education, you will be an expert amongst your friends and family while on vacation!

Lightning Whelk

Lightning Whelk

  • Largest of the three – 14 inches or longer
  • Left-sided opening
  • Typically gray, tan or light yellow with uneven streaks of purple and brown
Knobbed Whelk

Knobbed Whelk

  • 8-12 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Typically has streaks of purple and an interior color ranging from creamy yellow to orange
Channeled Whelk

Channeled Whelk

  • 4-16 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Deep channeled spirals instead of spiny spirals

While Whelks are the biggest shells you are likely to find, there are many other smaller shells you can hunt for while on the Outer Banks! The more shells you discover, the more you will realize that no two shells look the same: the coloring, the weathering, the size, etc. That means every shell you find will be unique and can be a wonderful keepsake from your vacation.


Let’s continue our shell education with smaller shells and a few rare ones!

scotch bonnet

Scotch Bonnet

  • 1.5-4 inches long with 20 spiral grooves
  • Right-sided opening
  • The North Carolina state shell
  • Very rare!

Banded Tulip

  • 2-4 inches long
  • Right-sided opening
  • Gray with spiraling brown bands

Coquina Clams

  • 1 inch long or smaller
  • Comes in a variety of colors including purple, pink, yellow and orange
  • Very common
Calico Scallop

Calico Scallops

  • 1-2 inches long
  • Comes in a variety of colors including black, white, gray, yellow, orange, pink and purple
  • Very common
Sand Dollar

Sand Dollars

  • 1-4 inches in diameter
  • White and tan; if brown then it is still alive
  • Very fragile and rare

Before we dive into our shelling tips and advice, let’s finish our shell education with a few fun ones: sea stars, fulgurite, and sea glass.

Sea Star

Sea Star

  • Most commonly known as a starfish (but it’s not a fish!)
  • Come in many different sizes
  • If you find one, you’ll likely find more close by!
  • Leave out to dry because they can have a strong odor


  • Formed when lightning strikes sand; it causes the mineral to melt and then harden
  • Small pieces are common but large pieces are very rare
  • Every piece is unique
Sea Glass

Sea Glass

  • The most popular find among beachcombers
  • Weathered down from salt water and rolling along the ocean floor
  • Most common colors include green, blue, brown, and white

If you can find all of these while on your vacation, then you are an all-star beachcomber!


Now that you know what to look for, we will offer our tips and tricks on seashell hunting. What’s the best time of the day? Do the tides affect my treasure hunt? Where on the Outer Banks beaches would I find a whelk? We’ve got you covered!

When is the best time to go shelling?

The best time of the day to comb the beaches is at sunrise because you will beat everyone else out there and the ocean has shifted the shell beds all night. Another thing to consider is the tide; low tide provides the widest beach and reveals the shell deposits that were hidden during high tide. Check the tide chart to know when these times are each day. Time of the year can also play a factor in shell hunting. Typically, fall and winter are the best times to find the rare shells due to more storm activity and less people.

Outer Banks Sunrise

Where is the best place to hunt for shells?

The incredible coastline of the Outer Banks spans roughly 200 miles from Corolla to Ocracoke providing you with plenty of places to go shelling. When searching on the beach, focus on looking under seaweed clumps, in tidal pools and right by the water. Remember that many just look on the surface; sometimes you need to dig down a little to find the good stuff! All of the shells mentioned above can be found on any of the OBX beaches, but you may have better luck at finding certain ones with our advice.

4×4 Beaches of Carova

Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sand Dollars

4 wheel drive allows you to find shell beds on the go!

Wide and uncrowded beaches


Corolla and Duck

Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sea Stars

While Whelks may be common, try finding one that is perfectly intact – rare!


Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head

Whelks, Coquina Clams, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Fulgurite, Sea Stars

There is even a beach named after the Coquina Clams in South Nags Head called Coquina Beach!



Scotch Bonnets, Whelks, Calico Scallops, Sea Glass, Sea Stars, Sand Dollars

Take a day trip to Ocracoke to find a Scotch Bonnet!

Outer Banks Beach

How should I hunt for shells?

When hunting for shells, it’s best to bring a grocery or mesh bag along to hold them. You will run out of pocket space quickly! If you have another bag handy, bring it along to collect trash off the beach. You never know…you may just get rewarded by finding a Scotch Bonnet by doing so! Please remember not to disturb any living sea life and fill in any holes that you dig during your search.

Good luck on your OBX shelling treasure hunt!

We’d love to see your finds! Tag us in your OBX shelling Facebook and Instagram posts.

Twiddy & Company

Twiddy & Company





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