Seashells, Gems from the Sea!
Collecting seashells is a fun pastime that enriches our appreciation of the marine habitats and coastal areas that border the waters of the Gulf of Maine. Kids of all ages enjoy searching for seashells at the water’s edge or hidden underneath the seaweed. Seashells are “gems from the sea” and they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors that inspire our imagination and sense of wonder. The variation in their designs and color patterns is astonishing and helps us to more fully appreciate the wonders of the natural world around us.
Some seashells have a sturdy and solid appearance, while others possess delicate features that contain fine etchings and patterns. Many shells have an overall shape that is balanced or symmetrical, like the spiral shell of the common periwinkle that narrows gracefully to its peak. Other shells are thick with broad expanses that create an awkward look or unbalanced shape, like the shell of an oyster that seems to have been spackled in a haphazard manner.
Seashells that wash up along our coastal beaches were once part of a living animal that is now dead. What we recognize as a seashell was once the outer protective covering or exoskeleton of a mollusk, an marine invertebrate that includes snails, clams, oysters and mussels. The shell remains long after the animal’s death for it is composed of a tough and resistant material called calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is a mineral that is secreted by outer tissues of the animal. These secretions continue over time to allow the animal to grow in size as it matures. When the mollusk dies, soft body parts inside the shell rot away or are eaten by other creatures. This leaves behind only the outer protective skeleton or seashell.
Whether you consider shell collecting a pleasant pastime, a life-long hobby or a profession, it is a great way to spend time exploring coastal areas and marine habitats. Try to schedule these types of outdoor adventures around the low tide when more of the beach is exposed. Beachcombing is often more successful at secluded beaches where fewer people have walked areas that may possess seashells. Don’t be afraid to dig in the sand or among the seaweed for you never know what kind of buried treasure you will find.
For further information on seashells found along the shores of the Gulf of Maine, visit the online field guide provided by eNature.
Below is a list of beaches off coastal New England that offer wonderful collecting opportunities for seashells. Use this list as a guide to help you find certain types of seashells that are common to specific areas or regions. This list was provided by Brian Cassie, a New England naturalist and lifetime shell collector. Brian is currently working on a book devoted to seashells and their collection and this book will soon be available to the public. Check back soon for we will post the name of the book and the publisher once the book is in print.
Finding Shells in New Hampshire
Odiorne Point State Park: New Hampshire has ten officially designated state beaches but only three of them are at the ocean. Odiorne Point State Park, it turns out, is not one of them but it is certainly the gem of the Granite State’s coastal properties. There are lots of facilities and trails and for the shell enthusiast, nice tide pools and rocky outcrops. The Seacoast Science Center is located within the park (with a separate admission fee) and offers programs and exhibits on marine life. There is a touch tank with tide pool animals and a thousand-gallon Gulf of Maine aquarium. Please follow all park and Science Center regulations regarding collecting.
Wallis Sands State Park: In places along the alternately rocky and sandy New Hampshire coastline one regularly comes across accumulations of drift material, large and small. Much of this drift is vegetative in nature (algae, cordgrass, etc.) and does not comprise much of interest to a shell collector. Wallis Sands State Park, however, obviously has some good shell topography just offshore and it has proven to be a great place to collect fine drift, at least on occasion. Such excellent gastropod shells as Arctic Paper Bubble, Arctic Barrel Bubble, Noah’s Puncturella, Smooth Top Shell, and Needle Turret Shell have been found here (see Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, MA for a very similar shell list).
Isles of Shoals: The author has only a little firsthand experience on the Isles of Shoals, the picturesque offshore islands shared by Maine and New Hampshire and visitable by various ferry services in warmer months. It is likely that there are good shells washed up on the islands’ beaches on occasion (probably mostly during the seasons when the boat services are not running!) and there are undoubtedly piers and rocky areas and tide pools with lots of shells waiting to be discovered. Talk to the locals and always ask permission to walk on private lands (here and elsewhere).
Rye: The coastal road in Rye is wonderfully scenic in all directions. There are any number of places one would like to stop but do not miss the obvious peninsula of rocks that juts seaward here. Among the rocks, well out on the rocky spit, there is a large, shallow tide pool exposed at low tide and it is well worth any amount of time one has to explore it. There are crabs and even lobsters galore here, scads of Green Sea Urchins and a smattering of brittle stars as well. Shells include Atlantic Dogwinkle, Tortoiseshell Limpet, periwinkles, and the uncommon Mottled Red Chiton, among others. Diligent searching may well lead to the discovery of cryptically colored, rock-clinging nudibranchs.
Dry-docked floats: All along the Northeast coastline, including New Hamphire’s, there are places where floating docks are pulled from the ocean and stacked for the cold weather months. By searching the sides and bottoms of the floats, one can usually find interesting (but unfortunate) mollusks that were attached to the structures when they were hauled out for the winter. Among the more common species are Blue Mussel, Arctic Rock Borer, and Prickly Jingle Shell. Sometimes, the dried-up bodies of Rough-mantled Nudibranchs are evident as well
Finding Shells in Massachusetts
The North Shore: North of Boston there are several outstanding collecting areas. Chief among these is Plum Island, a barrier island just to the east of mainland Newburyport. Over 90 species of marine shells have been found on Plum Island beaches. The best seasons to look are fall through spring and the best place to look is the outer beach from central Plum Island south to the island’s tip. At times, the beach here can be covered with shells and the species list is replete with many choice shells, including five kinds of bubbles, Colus whelks, Greenland Wentletrap, Duckfoot, Boreal Awning Clam, and a once-in-a-lifetime Giant Squid. Check with the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge for collecting guidelines.
South of Plum Island is the impressive granite headland known as Cape Ann. There are many tide pools here with limpets, periwinkles, and Atlantic Dogwinkles of many colors. Wingaersheek Beach in Gloucester can have nice offshore shells on the beach after storms and the wide swaths of very fine drift at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester very often include such excellent, though tiny, shells as Arctic Paper Bubble, Needle Turret Shell, Noah’s Puncturella, Smooth and Costulate Top Shells, and various cingulas, among many others. Look along the sides of the Cape Ann docks in spring for Maned Nudibranchs, Bushy-backed Nudibranchs, and other nudibranchs laying their intricate, delicate, and beautiful egg masses.
Not far to the north of Boston (and reachable by MBTA subway) are two beaches that have wonderful shells at times. The long stretch of Nahant Beach that merges into Lynn Beach can be strewn on occasion with thousands of large Northern Moon Shells as well as much smaller numbers of Great Piddock, New England Neptune, Conrad’s Thracia, and rarely, a Northern Lucine. Look at Point of Pines in Revere for Atlantic Razor Clam, Amethyst Gem Clam, moon shells, and others, often in abundance.
Boston and the South Shore: Metropolitan Boston may not compete with Sanibel Island as a shelling destination but there are certainly a few spots in town worth checking. Look on South Boston and Dorchester beaches for the large disk-shaped shells of the European Oyster. Within walking distance to the south is Wollaston Beach in Quincy, which is an excellent place to find Convex Slipper Shell, Little Surf Clam, and European Oyster. Mind the mudflats, which have lots of shells but really squishy mud in places.
Nantasket Beach in Hull is always worth visiting following any storm. Thousands of big Atlantic Surf Clams wash up here and are accompanied on the beach by Waved Whelks and their ball-shaped egg masses. New England Neptunes occasionally show up as well. Head further south to Plymouth Beach and the mix changes - not many large shells but at the north end of the beach such shells as Smooth Velutina show up regularly. Walk back along the bay side to see mudflat species. Finally, go to Scusset Beach immediately north of the Cape Cod Canal and expect an interesting cross-section of cold-water and warm-water species. This is a very good beach for sand dollars (but please do not collect the live ones.
Cape Cod: The Cape is renowned for its beaches and almost any area beach can be a rewarding collecting ground, especially if searched regularly. Experience has shown that wentletraps sometimes wash ashore around the Provincetown docks, that the Provincetown beach between Herring Cove and Race Point Light can hold vast numbers of Glassy Lyonsias, that South Beach and nearby Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham are great places to find Cross-hatched Lucine, Ponderous Ark, and impressive accumulations of Amethyst Gem Clams, and that the south-facing beaches on the Cape’s Vineyard Sound side have many shells, mostly small species, that come no further north. Included in this group are several beautiful bubble shells, miniature ceriths, and the extremely small but fascinating caecums. Kalmus Point Beach in Hyannis has the longest shell list (about 90 species) but impressive numbers of shells have been collected at South Cape Beach and West Dennis Beach, as well.
The Islands: Martha’s Vineyard (which has its own shell book), Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands have outstanding shell collecting potential. The beaches on Martha’s Vineyard’s east side and Nantucket’s west end have the colorful Atlantic Bay Scallop, Channeled and Knobbed Whelk, and lots of other molluscan treats. The islands’ more exposed beaches are good places to pick up Chestnut Astartes. Very rarely, after an especially strong storm, a beachcomber might come across a Ram’s Horn or violet snail.
Buzzard’s Bay: From Wareham to Westport, shell collectors can expect to find a fine variety of shells along the shores of Buzzard’s Bay. Swift’s Beach in Wareham frequently has delicate Common Awning Clams in the drift, as well as Purplish Tagelus on occasion. Look along the shores of any beaches in the Marion-Mattapoisett area for all three-miniature ceriths, all three caecums, and a good selection of other shells, large and small. In Fairhaven, the beach at Fort Phoenix State Reservation usually has scads of Common Slipper Shells and Atlantic Bay Scallops and sometimes great numbers of Alternate Bittiums, as well as smaller numbers of other small shells. Further west, the beaches at Demerest Lloyd State Park in South Dartmouth and Gooseberry Island State Beach in Westport are among the best spots to find Spotted Moon Shell, Common Basket Clam, and Well-ribbed Dove Shell.
Finding Shells in Rhode Island
Newport and Middletown: In Newport, most of the seaside strollers are either gazing at the imposing mansions or watching the impressive regatta of sailing vessels. But take the time to look down along the shoreline and there are some great shells to be found. Easton’s Beach, a.k.a. First Beach, is always worth exploring and is sometimes a bonanza for shell collectors. This is probably the best spot in the Northeast to find the Cross-hatched Lucine, a beautiful bowl-shaped shell. The Cross-hatched Lucine apparently no longer occurs in the living state in the Northeast (perhaps not since before the last Ice Age) but shells wash up on various south-facing beaches and Easton’s Beach, at least on occasion, can have scores. This beach and nearby Second Beach irregularly have several species of bubbles, caecums, turbonilles, odostomes, tellins, and wentletraps in the drift, along with the large Channeled and Knobbed Whelks. This is also the best place to look for the Green Jackknife Clam, a southern species that is rarely found elsewhere in New England. The pelagic Brown Sargassum Snail, an extremely rare beach shell anywhere in the Northeast, has been found here. In total, the shell list for First and Second Beaches is about 90 species, as good as any place in the Northeast.
Jamestown Island: This island is a popular destination for warm weather tourists and summer residents. Access is very easy from Newport and mainland Rhode Island via enormous bridges. On the island, visit the various deep coves. SCUBA divers are often in evidence and there can be large numbers of jellyfishes and comb jellies here - and sometimes a squid if you are lucky.
South Shore Beaches: The south-facing coast of Rhode Island, all the way west to Napatree Point, offers an almost unparalleled stretch of long sandy beaches with very good accessibility. The only problem is that almost all of the beaches are poor for shell collecting. Big storms, of course, can litter beaches with shells but it would take a dedicated shell searcher to put together a good collection from most of these beaches. The only exception is Napatree Point Conservation Area, the westernmost beach on the southern strand. This is a very good area to watch bird and butterfly migration in late summer and fall and a fine collecting area for some less common shells. Astartes, especially Chestnut Astarte, False Quahog, and Well-ribbed Dove Shell (which can occur in the hundreds or thousands), are regularly found mixed in with mussels. Napatree is probably the best spot in the Northeast to find the Northern Cardita.