With a few exceptions, the entire coast of Florida, from Jacksonville to Pensacola, is happy hunting grounds for the shell collector. But no place--maybe no place else on earth--matches the tiny island of Sanibel for the wealth, diversity, and sheer volume of its seashells.
Sanibel is about 25 miles southwest of Fort Myers, a crescent-shaped sliver in the Gulf of Mexico. The arc of the crescent points almost due south, meeting warm, incoming currents like the prow of a ship. The currents gently (and sometimes not so gently) deliver payloads of Mollusca - shellfish - with virtually every wave. Most of the time it's just the empty shell that is deposited on the beach. But living organisms wash up, too, some of them the rare survivors of endangered species of shelled animals. So concerned is the little city of Sanibel with the potential for damage to what's left of the shellfish phylum that it passed an ordinance outlawing the "harvest" of more than two living shellfish of any single species, per day, per person. Exceptions to this rule are oysters, hard clams, sunray Venus clams, bay scallops, and coquinas. Sanibel is the only municipality in Florida with such a law.
Along with her smaller sister island, Captiva, Sanibel is home to the exquisitely maintained Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Nearby Pine Island is also protected, making this regional gem a haven for birds, especially birds like osprey and pelicans with a taste for shellfish and the animals who eat them. It is also a haven for people. Several private resorts grace Sanibel Island, as well as a number of lavishly appointed condominiums, which are available for rental by the week.
Several other Florida beaches are considered good shelling spots by those in the know. Don't expect to find 3-foot drifts of shells like on Sanibel, but the area from Clearwater to St. Petersburg often produces nice finds. Look around the Ten Thousand Islands, too. Key West no longer has the rich offerings of our grandparents' generation, but warm tropical currents brush past the