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Coming Out Of Your Shell

Florida’s Sanibel Island attracts shell seekers but delivers
more than buckets of these beauties.

The wind has shifted a bit. Bigger gusts are coming from the west. This can make a difference in the seashells that will wash up on the beaches of southwest Florida’s Sanibel Island in a matter of days.


Above: Shell seekers may find some 400 varieties along the beaches of Sanibel Island. Lee County VCB photo

Below: Sanibel’s lighthouse dates to 1884. At the site, visitors can experience fishing, picnics, or simply enjoying the beach.


“Everything is based around the wind,” says Clark Rambo. Clark and his wife, Pam, are longtime Sanibel shellers. “Besides the wind, I like to read the beach and read the tide lines. Each tide brings in something different,” Pam says as she pokes through the debris from a recent high tide, revealing the smallest sand dollars I have ever seen.

Full-time island residents for the past 12 years, the Rambos have been shellers since childhood—Pam along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Clark along the south Jersey shore. In her blog,, she shares tips and expertise from years of shelling. The blog is followed by folks from more than 150 countries, Clark tells me. “We call her a ‘shellebrity,’” he jokes.

As the three of us walk along the beach carefully scanning the sand around us, Pam says shelling almost always becomes a competition for the two of them. She likes to shell along the beach, while Clark prefers the water. With more than 400 species to seek, it’s a treasure hunt.

“Seashells are beautiful,” Pam says, “but the act of shelling is such an opportunity to experience nature at its best, and I think that’s why people love Sanibel Island so much.”

Water World

Sanibel Island, connected by a causeway to the mainland near Fort Myers, is geographically situated perpendicular to the Florida coastline. Because of this, the island is perfectly positioned for shells from the Caribbean and other southern seas to wash ashore via gulf waters. These jewels of the sea are sought-after souvenirs for most who visit the island, and many explorers make their way to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum to learn more about molluscan diversity, as well as the artistic and functional importance of shells throughout history.

A giant re-created conch shell welcomes visitors at the entrance. Inside, exhibits reveal how mollusks and their exoskeletons (shells) have influenced medicine, cuisine, and architectural design.

Sanctuary to both humans and wildlife, Sanibel Island is a product of careful conservation—more than 8,000 acres of the island are federally protected. The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge—so named for the cartoonist and well-known conservationist Jay Norwood Darling, who went by the nickname Ding—maintains one of the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems and provides habitat for 220 bird species.

The refuge is very accessible, and exploring is made easy by its concessionaire, Tarpon Bay Explorers. Activities include tram tours, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing, as well as interpretive tours that get folks out on Tarpon Bay for views of mangrove forests, nesting birds, and surfacing dolphins.

Fowl, Fins, Fur

More opportunities to encounter flora and fauna are possible at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation’s Nature Center (3333 Sanibel-Captiva Road), including walking trails, an observation tower, a butterfly house, and touch tanks. At the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (3883 Sanibel-Captiva Road), the Visitor Education Center offers hands-on exhibits and videos about treating its furry and feathered patients.

Never far from the water, island accommodations include traditional inns, full-service resorts, and condominium beach rentals. Check out the Holiday Inn on Sanibel Island (AAA Three Diamonds) or Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa in Fort Myers.

Bike trails meander across the island, easily linking accommodations to shops, restaurants, and such attractions as the Sanibel Lighthouse, an 1884 tower that anchors the island’s eastern end and includes a fishing pier, beach, nature trail, and shady picnic sites.

Sanibel Island is not merely a vacation paradise; a year-round resident population keeps it feeling like a close-knit village. There’s even a two-screen movie theater that shows first-run films, and all necessities, from groceries to hardware, can be found at Bailey’s General Store (2477 Periwinkle Way), owned and operated by four generations of the same family.

On Sanibel Island, even visitors feel like neighbors, and a conversation over coffee leaves a welcoming reminder that this place is something special.

Jill Carstens-Faust is senior/photo editor of Home & Away magazine in Omaha, Neb.

September/October 2014 Issue


For more information, call (800) 237-6444 or go to to obtain additional information about Sanibel Island and neighboring Fort Myers.

To visit Sanibel Island, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

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