Shark teeth, shells and sea glass: Treasure hunting on North Carolina's coast

12/24/2020 12:05
Emma Dill
Wilmington StarNews

With their wide stretches of sand, the beaches along North Carolina's coast are perfect for social distancing - the new normal in 2020.

And while social distancing may have cancelled traditional holiday celebrations with family and friends, it has helped us find new ways to celebrate - like treasure hunting at the beach.

From shells to sea glass, there are always unique treasures you can find in the sand.

New to the search? Here are some tips for finding shells and other treasures:

  • Follow the tide - Searching for shells in the hours before and after low tide will give you more beach to search and a chance to see what high tide left behind.
  • Get out there early - Getting onto the beach early in the day will help you avoid any crowds and will increase your chances of finding unique shells and other treasures. 
  • Mix it up - Try to comb through a variety of terrain from established beaches to more isolated areas. Each spot can offer new finds.
  • Be persistent - Shelling requires time and chance, so don't be discouraged if you don't find anything your first time out.

Here are 10 things you can find at the beach this season:

Shark teeth on display at the 2015 North Carolina Shell Show.

1. Shark teeth

Coastal North Carolina is a hot spot for shark teeth because sharks live along the coast and the region is situated above fossil deposits. Due to ocean currents, shark teeth are most likely to turn up on east-facing beaches like Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Topsail Beach.

Beach nourishments and other offshore activities help stir up the water and bring shark teeth ashore.

2. Scotch Bonnet

The Scott Bonnet is the state shell of North Carolina. While these shells often wash ashore along North Carolina's Outer Banks, they are a rare find elsewhere in the state. 

This shell is most likely to be found in isolated areas with little development.

Shells rest along the shoreline in Oak Island, N.C. after Hurricane Matthew.

3. Sand dollars

Sand dollars are extremely fragile and it's rare to find one fully intact. The sand dollar you find on the beach is actually the skeleton of a variety of sea urchin.

Sand dollars range in size, and beachgoers are most likely to find them at low tide, especially after a storm.

4. Banded tulip shells

The banded tulip is a warm-water shell with a smooth, curving shape. It has a pearl-gray exterior that's sometimes covered with splotches of olive green or tan.This shell is most likely to be found at Ocean Isle Beach, according to the Visit North Carolina website.

5. Olive shells

This shell is a fairly common find. Olive shells are skinny and have a long opening that spirals at the top.

They are known for their speckled outside and violet-colored interior. The shell's length ranges from one to three inches.

Lisa Plazzo's collection of sea glass is shown at her home in Wilmington on May 29, 2015.

6. Sea glass

Sea glass, also known as mermaid tears, are shards of glass that are smoothed and frosted by the waves. Sea glass is most commonly found on the Brunswick County coast because the area is located south of local shipping ports.

In recent years, sea glass has become more difficult to find as more people recycle and communities ramp up efforts to keep their beaches clean. It's easiest to spot sea glass on sunny days because the sun reflects off the shards.

7. Whelks

Whelks are sometimes mistaken for conch shells - another treasure found along the North Carolina coast - because they share the same curving shape.

Whelks are commonly found along Mansonboro Island during low tide.

A display at the 2015 North Carolina Shell Show.

8. Moon snails

These shells can be spotted at any beach in the Wilmington area, but they aren't always easy to find.

The shells range in size from one-half to three inches. They are broad, circular shells that feature a central spiral.

9. Coquinas

From yellow and orange to violet and beige, coquinas come in an array of colors. These shells are small - about the size of a fingernail - and are a common find on beaches along North Carolina's coast.

Ami Wilbur, Director of UNCWs Shellfish Research Hatchery, holds bay scallops from the New River at the hatchery in Wilmington Wednesday, October 3, 2012.

10. Scallops

These fan-shaped shells are common in the Wilmington area. Both the Atlantic Bay Scallop and the Calico Scallop wash up regularly along the shore of Carolina Beach.

Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or