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CAYO COSTA, Fla. -- They shuffle along the beaches, eyes cast down, as if in a trance.

Occasionally, they dig in the sand with their toes, or with specialized shovels. They, shellers combing the beaches of Florida’s outer islands, are searching for treasures in the form of Augers, Angel Wings, Buttons, Ceriths or Coquinas.

Shelling is a popular activity on Sanibel, North Captiva, Cayo Costa and other Gulf Coast islands. Businesses such as Captiva Cruises offer excursions just for shelling.

“It’s one of the top three places in the world to go shelling,” said Brian Holaway. These out islands don’t have as many people that shell on the islands. This morning there were 40 people on this beach (Cayo Costa) as opposed to 4,000. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve had people go out with me for 15 years, at every time of the year.”

The trip to Cayo Costa, an isolated island off the southwest coast of Florida, involved a 30-minute boat ride from Captiva Island. Shellers were turned loose on the beach for several hours to hunt their treasures.

“We go out to the outer islands, Cayo Costa, and we have trips to other islands,” Holaway said. “We go to the islands that are only accessible by boat, and to the state parks so there aren’t as many people there. It’s a lot of the same shells, but not as many people on the beaches.”

The Gulf Coast islands, with their sandy beaches and shallow flats, are natural depositories for shells.

“Just because of the orientation of the islands, and it’s very shallow out in the Gulf of Mexico, so along the whole Gulf Coast here,” Holaway said. “Sanibel runs east and west so it can act as a little catch pit. The other islands are still good, but Sanibel is east and west, so it can kind of catch them differently.”

Sanibel is known for its shelling, but it is also the most populated of the islands.

Shells can be found nearly anywhere on these beaches. However, not all shelling trips are created equal.

“Everything depends on the wind and the waves,” Holaway said. “For example, yesterday it was rough. The wind kicked up 48 hours ago, so it’s pushed shells higher than they’ve been up on the beach in two weeks. Those shells are very high. They’re all new. Those shells that got washed up there very high, they’ll be higher than the highest tide.

“If you went at a low tide, you may not see all the shells that were just deposited. So, even though it’s a high tide and you went shelling, you could see all those shells that were up there.”

The conventional wisdom states that low tide is optimal, a point Holaway disputes.

“I’ve been shelling for 20 years,” he said. “Low tide, don’t get me wrong, it can be good, but it isn’t the end all, you have to go at low tide.”

And, there is no bad time of year for shelling.

“In the winter time you get cold fronts which cause high winds, they’ll bring in more shells,” Holaway said. “In the summer time the water is clear, so you can snorkel. It depends on kind of what you’re looking for, December to February could be better.”

An important item to keep in mind is that low shelling is prohibited on the islands and in the state parks. If the shell is occupied by its original inhabitant, or a hermit crab, it must be left alone.

For information on shelling cruises, contact Captiva Cruises at 239-472-5300.

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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

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