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Guide to Identifying Sea Shells in the Outer Banks

With miles of relatively untouched shoreline, Hatteras Island is paradise for any beachcomber. The island is nestled in perfect proximity to two major East Coast currents: the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current. These currents bring the island a variety of sea shells to hunt year-round.

Shells that are native to colder waters generally wash ashore along the north facing beaches, those above Cape Point. Shells that are native to warmer waters, those from North Carolina to Florida, can wash ashore along the south facing beaches from the Point to the tip of Hatteras.

A good technique to follow when shelling is to begin your hunt either side of low tide. You want to scout out beaches with shallow shorelines, those south of the Point. The waves in these areas are small and they do not break on the shore with the same force as the large ones. Shells have a better chance to wash up undamaged. These areas are better known to bring ashore more delicate shells such as the Scotch Bonnet. Another good time to shell hunt is right after a storm. 

Now that you have a few tips, it's time to shell!

Types of Sea Shells

As mentioned, with the variety of water currents that hit our shores there are so many different types of sea shells that wash up. Below is the OBR Guide to Seas Shells of the Outer Banks!

Scotch Bonnet

The official state shell of North Carolina. Named for its resemblance to the caps and plaid worn by the Scottish peasants.

Small collection of Scotch Bonnet seashells that were found on the shore of Hatteras Island North Carolina


Whelks are most often mistaken for conchs which are very similar to the species.

The difference:

  • Whelks live in cooler waters and are carnivores whose diet consists of mostly meat.
  • Conchs live in warmer tropical waters and are herbivores who feed on vegetation.

Fun Fact: Whelks larger than fist size are (or were) mostly female.

Knobbed Whelks

Several triangular knobbed spirals that taper to a long siphon canal.

Several triangular knobbed spirals that taper to a long siphon canal

Lightning Whelks

Similar appearance to the Knobbed Whelk but with a left-side opening. This means the snail is left-handed and the body is on the left as it travels forward with the spire in the rear.

Similar appearance to the Knobbed Whelks but with a left-side opening

Channeled Whelks

This Whelk is easy to classify with its deep channeled spirals and weak knobbs, if any.

Channeled Whelks found off the coast of Hatteras Island North Carolina

Lettered Olive Shells

Long pointed tube with tightly wound spirals at the point. These shells typically grow to 2-3" long and come in many color varieties and patterns. Newer shells are covered with brown zig zag lines and triangle shapes with the shell base a pale color.

Lettered Olive seashells found on Hatteras Island North Carolina

Shark Eye

Also known as Atlantic Moon Snails -  These have large whirled bodies that spiral inward to form the "eye."  The color of the eye can be blue, purple, orange, or hazel.

Shark Eye seashell found on the shore of Hatteras Island North Carolina


Glossy cone-shaped shells with short siphon canals.

Several Auger seashells found on Hatteras Island North Carolina


These shells are egg shaped with cross-hatched textures.

Bottom view of a Nutmeg shell found on Hatteras Island North Carolina

Mud Snails and Nassas

Small oval shells of several color and textured varieties.

Two Mudsnail seashells side by side in comparison to the head of a nail

Eastern Murex

These architectural beauties have turnip-shaped bodies with nearly 8 axial ridges and sharp hollow spikes.

Gaint Eastern Murex shell found after a storm, on the coast of Hatteras Island North Carolina


These shells vary in color. The variety with splashes of pink and red and sometimes yellow rays are Calico Scallops, like most in this photo.

Different varieties of scallop shells found on Hatteras Island North Carolina

Florida Fighting Conch

This shell's winglike tip is low and slopes downwards. The spirals are short with dulled spines and can be found from North Carolina to Texas.

Fighting Conch seashell found on the shore of Hatteras Island North Carolina.

Beachcombing can be a great past time while visiting the Outer Banks. Use this guide and our knowledge to find the perfect spot to experience this North Carolina must!

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