Whether you call it shelling, collecting or beachcombing, scooping up seashells scattered on the sand, fresh from the ocean is one of the most popular activities in Myrtle Beach — one almost every visitor does it casually at some point during their trip.
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With 60 miles of sand, the Grand Strand is a perfect place to hunt down a variety of shells — and the occasional shark’s tooth — as you stroll the wide sandy beaches it has to offer.
For those who enjoy shelling it seems every find, no matter how “common” or simple, is an intricately made, colorful and tangible memento of a fun trip to Myrtle Beach.
Whether you are a casual collector who picks up bits and pieces from the sand without bothering to identify them or a serious shell nerd, Laura Rusinko, president of the Grand Strand Shell Club, has valuable advice to offer about finding shells.
“The best time to look for shells is low tide or as the tide is going out,” she says. “This gives seekers a chance to see more shells.”
Rusinko and her husband Bob have been collecting shells in Myrtle Beach for more than 23 years, 14 of those as residents of the Grand Strand after they moved here from Cayuga, N.Y.
In addition to serving as president of the local shell club, she also runs the club’s membership, puts out a shell newsletter and books speakers on the topic — needless to say, she knows her shells.
The art of shelling
While there’s no exact science to shelling and there’s no bad time to try it out, there are certain times when the hobby is especially fruitful.
Rusinko says that in addition to low tide, during a full moon or after a big storm the tides are stronger and bring in more shells.
Many collectors also choose to go early in the morning in order to get a jump on the action before the beaches get crowded and picked over.
Often serious shellers each like to keep their own little “secret” spots for finding the best shells, but well-known places for beachcombing in Myrtle Beach include the state parks, as well as some of the less crowded beaches like Pawleys Island and Cherry Grove.
But even with the best of spots picked out, finding tons of great shells can be a crapshoot. Rusinko warns that on any given day you may find all, some or none of what you’re looking for.
That said, some of the abundant types of shells that you may find in the area are lettered olives, augers, wentletraps, several kinds of whelks, bay ears, moon snails, and a variety of clam and oyster shells.
“Some are small, but if the shell is whole and well shaped, it is collectable,” she says.
One common find is the ever-popular sand dollar, which can be beautiful to collect, but also serves as a great reminder of the beachcomber’s mantra of leaving live animals alone.
“Everyone loves a sand dollar, but unless they are white or light gray, they are probably alive. The brown ones with hair-like spines are alive and should never be taken,” she says. “We encourage collectors not to take anything live off of the beach.”
It’s also important for beachcombers to be aware of their surroundings and do their best to preserve the beach environment.
The Shell Club often collects trash and glass while combing the beach. The group also reminds visitors to stay off the dunes and respect others on the beach.
“God created all the creatures that you see, take time to enjoy all the beauty there is and help preserve it for our future generations,” said Rusinko.
Identifying your treasures
A day full of shelling in Myrtle Beach will likely yield a wealth of tide-borne treasures in all different shapes and sizes, so once you’ve collected them the next challenge is to identify exactly what you’ve got.
Since many specimens look alike, it can often be tough tell them apart, so its best to begin at the most simple classification.
Essentially, all shells can be broken down into two styles based on the number of pieces covering the animal who once lived inside.
There’s the univalve, made up of one shell, and the bivalve, which consists of two shells.
While Rusinko and her fellow club members often rely on each other’s expertise to help them identify tough specimens, an easy way for visitors to classify shells is with a colorful shell book such as “Seashells of Georgia and the Carolinas” by Blair and Dawn Witherington.
There are also tons of great online resources for identifying shells such as Seashells.org, ILoveShelling.com or SeaShell-Collector.com and even some great local guides including Myrtle Beach State Park’s Beachcombing Guide and the shelling guide at FunBeaches.com.
Making a shell collection
Once you have a pail full of shells gathered and identified, the next step to beginning a collection is to clean and ready them for display or for use in crafts.
Rusinko’s advice is to start by giving the shells a good soak in clean, fresh water to remove excess sand or mud.
Particular shells may need special treatment so serious collectors should look up the shell online and see how it should be cleaned.
“Time and patience determine how clean your shell collection will be,” she says.
Many collectors also choose to soak their shells a solution of bleach and water overnight to remove any excess dirt or materials.
They then dry the shells by placing the on newspaper to help draw out the excess moisture and many even go as far as to polish them with oil or other substances to restore the shine taken away from the salt and weathering of the ocean.
This primes the shells for display or for use in an array of crafting projects, limited only by the collector’s imagination.
“We always enjoy seeing the crafts people make with their shells,” Rusinko said. “We also display our collections at various places such as the Little River Welcome Center, the Horry County library and the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.”