Collecting seashells on a family beach vacation is fun. Forgetting them in your trunk and letting them bake in the hot sun? Not so much. Here’s how to take care of your sea treasures before they stink, including advice on how to clean shells and simple craft projects to display them for years to come.
What You Need to Collect Seashells
A family beach vacation is the highlight of many summers. Collecting pretty shells is one of the activities everyone can enjoy, including toddlers, teens and Grandpa.
Best of all, there’s no expensive equipment needed.
However, there are a few things you can have on hand to make shelling easier. You can also turn it into an educational experience. When you arrive at your beach destination, go to the local visitor’s center. If there isn’t one, see if there’s an information kiosk or billboard.
I’ve found that there’s usually a significant amount of information about the local wildlife posted. The kids might like to know what kind of seashells they’re going to find. For example, you don’t want someone expecting to find a pretty conch shell in Maine like you’d find on Florida’s Sanibel Island.
Color coded buckets for every member of your family are definitely something you should pack for your beach vacation. This will help you remember which shells are Suzy’s and which ones are Billy’s. Trust me. One person will find the BEST shell and everyone will fight over it.
If you’re flying to your destination, buy inexpensive pails at a local dollar or convenience store. Or use the bags hanging in your closet, provided by hotels for laundry orders.
A Seashell is Kinda Like an RV for Sea Critters
It’s really important to explain to kids that seashells are tiny homes for all kinds of living creatures. Most of the shells you’ll find washed up on a beach are the hard casings of mollusks like clams, oysters and mussels. Beaches usually prohibit removing living creatures and may even post signs about endangered species in the area. Places like the Cabrillo National Monument tide pools in San Diego stress the “no touch” rule.
How can you tell if you’ve found a live seashell? Get up close and touch them…gently. If there’s any sign of movement, chances are you’ve found a live shell and there’s something still using the shell as home.
With sand dollars, if they’re gray in color and turn your fingers yellow when you touch them, they are alive.
How to Clean Seashells
Once you have collected the perfect seashells to take home, you will want to give them a good cleaning ASAP. You may notice a kind of flaky skin on the outside of your seashells. This outer covering, which resembles a sunburn that is peeling, is known as the periostracum. Removing this covering is the first step to clean shells.
Using a shallow plastic container, spread out your seashells submerged in a solution that is half bleach and half water. I have found that at least two hours is a good rule of thumb for soaking. However, it’s best to keep an eye on them and remove the shells as soon as the periostracum is gone.
Some folks recommend using a muriatic acid solution. Muriatic acid is a strong chemical and I don’t recommend using it. Bleach may even be too much for you. For many shells, Dawn or another dish detergent might just do the trick.
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Then, rinse the seashells in cold, clean water and soak them for another couple of hours in fresh water. Next, spread your seashells out on a towel and let them dry. This is a good time to inspect them for any barnacles or sea bits or animal tissue that detract from their beauty. Use an old toothbrush or wire brush to gently scrub that stuff off.
The final step is to polish your shells. Rub them with baby oil or mineral oil for a shiny finish. Or go all out and paint them with a coat of clear nail polish for real shine.
Alternatively, you may prefer your conch and clam shells to keep their natural look and color. In that case, you’re done!
What NOT to Do With Seashells
Allison Bean Taylor recommends leaving seashells out in the sun to dry. But make a reminder note to bring them back inside. Her family left a collection on the patio table….for 2 months!
How to Display Your Seashells
Once you’re home, you’ll need to find a way to display your beautiful shells. If you don’t get to it right away, chances are you’ll find them in an old Ziploc bag one day when you’re cleaning out your hall closet (says the voice of experience).
Fill a Glass Container
If you are craft challenged like me, the easiest way to display your seashells is to purchase a beautiful clear glass bowl or vase. Fill it with your seashells and display it on a dining or console table.
Make a Seashell Frame
Grab that hot glue gun and a simple picture frame and get busy! This is the perfect way to display small, delicate seashells. And you end up with a frame for your favorite family beach photo.
Kids’ Seashell Crafts
Keep some seashells in reserve and break them out for craft projects with the kids when they start whining “I’m bored!”
Lisa Henry O’Driscoll lives in Florida and has easy access to a never-ending supply of seashells. She’s designed two easy seashell craft projects for kids: Super Cute Seashell Turtle and a Paper Plate Ocean Craft.
What’s your favorite beach for collecting seashells?
Liz Sharp says
Hi from Charleston SC and area beaches! This is very helpful! I live here and bring grandkids in for a summer vacay every year. We have a rule: preserve sea creatures — so we always leave inhabited shells in the water. Green sand dollars are ALIVE and should be immediately thrown back into the water. Look for movement on the bottom of sand dollars (how they “walk” and on starfish as well. “It matters to that one” that they are returned to their water home.
Question: I’m putting clean dry conch shells into a clear lamp. I do not want mold to start — is baby or mineral oil the best thing to use to “shine” the shell before building our memory craft? Other suggestions?
Linda Hammontree says
I lived in Maine for 35 years & collected shells for years. I used the shells to make small wreaths. 1st I rinse them outside to get all the sand out, then 2nd I wash them in the sink inside with dish detergent & rinse them then lay them on a towel to dry out, 3rd I place them in my freezer for 2 weeks to kill all the stinky out of them. Then they are ready to put in a wreath.
Jean Dickey says
Want Florida beaches known for sea glass??? In Okinawa, we found loads every day…I miss searching for it. I found one tiny piece of green at Stuart Beach
Chris Chase says
Sunset Beach on Treasure Island is fantastic for shelling especially after a storm, large or small.