Sanibel’s Great Scavenger Hunt
Story and photos by Charles Williams
Charles is the editor for Pursuits with Enterprise. Email the author.
Visitors come from around the world to find seashell treasure.
The sun wouldn’t rise for at least another hour.
But when I arrived at Lighthouse Beach, people already were returning with their trophies from the tide — bags of coveted seashells.
Game over. You might say I was shell-shocked.
Who were these flashlight-toting folk who ignored the sanctity of sleep? The beachcombers on Sanibel Island, Florida, might not always look competitive, but when you’re competing in the championship game of shelling, winning is everything.
Sanibel and its neighbor Captiva have some of the world’s best beaches for shelling. The barrier islands lie off Florida’s west coast in the Gulf of Mexico, conveniently connected by causeway to Fort Myers. Sanibel’s unusual east-west orientation allows gentle waves to deliver over 450 species of unbroken shells by the bucketload. To pick up all those shells, people bend over for hours doing what’s known as the “Sanibel Stoop" or “Captiva Crouch."
Shelling Is a "Chosen Sport’"
But I hadn’t come to Sanibel for just any beach bling — I wanted a brown speckled junonia. The name sounds ominous and conjures up visions of a hairy spider or venomous snake. But it’s just a shell, and not a very big one at that.
On Sanibel, though, it’s no ordinary shell. The brown speckled junonia is a treasured find, one that lands your photograph in the local newspaper. Discovering one might be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
After searching at Lighthouse Beach, I tried other popular spots — Bowman’s Beach, Turner Beach, Captiva Beach — and quickly realized that when it came to seashells, I didn’t know my kitten’s paw from my coquina. Who was I kidding? I live in landlocked St. Louis, where the only shell I know is a gas station. So, I prepared myself for the challenge.
I read the popular iloveshelling blog and scoured the internet for advice. I learned to study tide charts, moon phases, water currents and wind direction. Would this be a vacation or a military operation, I wondered?
The more I researched, the more I became obsessed with finding a junonia. I was like a small child throwing a tantrum; I wanted it just because I couldn’t have it.
Upping a Newcomer’s Game
On the beaches I visited, I realized that serious shell seekers are determined athletes, and shelling is their chosen sport. Since I was a visitor, they obviously had home-field advantage.
If I was going to compete with these local experts, I had to get my head in the game. I turned to the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum and Dr. Jose H. Leal.
Dr. Leal, the Science Director and Curator, has been working at the shell museum for 22 years and has a Ph.D. in marine biology. If anybody could help me, he could.
“Junonias are not a dime a dozen — hence the mystique of them, the holy grail if you will,” he said.
Dr. Leal taught me that junonias are a type of mollusk, specifically a gastropod. The animal and the shell grow together, and when the animal dies, only its calcium carbonate shell remains.
Live junonias are found in water beginning around 80 feet and about 100 miles offshore — so their shells travel a long way, making them hard to find naturally washed up on a beach. They usually appear after strong winter storms churn the Gulf of Mexico. When this happens, Blind Pass Beach on Sanibel is a great place to look because shells can pile up four feet thick. “Either you find them in the water or you find them buried in those very thick piles of shells,” he said.
It was December so my timing was perfect. I only had one problem: blue skies.
But what about a secret place to search? Cayo Costa State Park was a nearby island and only accessible by boat. “You have as many shells as Sanibel, but you have less people,” he said. “So the odds are in your favor once you get there.”
The advice reminded me of baseball’s greatest place hitter, Willie Keeler, who once said, “Hit ‘em where they ain’t!” The logic seemed sound. I figured I’d just find ‘em where they ain’t. I immediately booked a boat with Captiva Cruises.
Holding That Prized Shell
Cayo Costa State Park features pine forests, mangrove swamps and 9 miles of pristine beaches. Sure enough, hardly anyone was there. I dug through shell piles and discovered several interesting varieties — Florida fighting conchs, Southern surf clams, Atlantic calico scallops — but no junonias.
When I returned to the boat, I confessed my failure to the captain. Surprisingly, he asked if I wanted to see a brown speckled junonia and promptly retrieved one from his pocket.
He said he liked to help all the tourists get back on the boat and then act like they had just walked past it — a devilish act but one that made me laugh.
I held the beautiful shell, admiring its smooth tapering and pattern of brown dots. But something didn’t feel right. I hadn’t earned it.
If you really want a junonia, you can buy one for about $100. But the challenge of finding one isn’t about mere possession — it’s about the thrill of the hunt. And Sanibel and Captiva are beautiful sun-drenched places to hunt, where warm breezes, swaying palm trees and gorgeous sunsets quickly soothe any pangs of shelling disappointment.
When I was at the Shell Museum, I met Bubby Howell who gives informative live tank lectures about mollusks. She recounted a story about a woman who sat next to her on a pile of shells at Blind Pass Beach following a big storm. As the woman dug her hands through a newly washed up heap of shells — two brown speckled junonias fell out.
Howell simply laughed and added, “And I’ve been looking for 44 years for one.”
RelatedView all articles
Read more stories about Florida.
Sanibel is a Treasure Trove of Family Fun
Nearby Captiva and Fort Myers also offer chances for lasting memories.
Anna Maria Island Evokes Memories of 'Old Florida'
The barrier island reminds us of the joy of living life in the slow lane.
Florida’s Space Coast Launches Memories
A trip to the Kennedy Space Center embraces the past and celebrates the future.
Memorable Attractions are a Short Drive from Disney World
Extend your magical vacation with these road trips from Orlando.
Pair a Trip to Disney World With a Beach Vacation
The Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast are easy drives from Orlando.
Pier Fishing Along Florida’s Gulf Coast
Even if you don’t catch a thing, you can still savor the experience.
Swimming With Manatees in Florida
A close encounter with these gentle giants makes for an unforgettable adventure.
Sanibel’s Great Scavenger Hunt
Visitors come from around the world to find seashell treasure.
Florida’s Space Coast Attractions
The Kennedy Space Center is the big draw, but it’s not the only reason to visit.
Explore Dry Tortugas National Park on a Day Trip from Key West
The remote area in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.
4 Florida Barrier Islands Charm Visitors
The Sunshine State’s west coast features a succession of beautiful spots perfect for a coastal road trip.
The Beautiful Beaches of the Florida Panhandle
Relax, dine and play in the area’s charming coastal towns.
Take a Leisurely Drive Down to Key West
A road trip on the Overseas Highway brings visitors to the homes of sea turtles, endangered deer and Ernest Hemingway.
Get more road trip ideas.
Tampa to Miami Road Trip
When your flight lands in Tampa, pick up your Enterprise rental car at the airport and prepare for a road trip full of sunny beaches and an awesome national park.
Road Trip from New York to Florida in 4-days
Looking to take a trip to one of Florida's spectacular white sand beaches? See our favorite itineraries and enjoy the journey as much as the destination!
Road Trip from New York to Florida in 2-Days
Looking to take a trip to one of Florida's spectacular white sand beaches? See our favorite stops on this 2-day trip from NYC.
Drive from Atlanta to Miami
Take this road trip to experience the Southern Charm of Atlanta and the tropical flair of Miami. Along the way, you'll find unforgettable experiences throughout Georgia and Florida.
Road Trip from Miami to Key West in 1 Day
Take a trip from Miami, Florida to Key West with Enterprise Rent-A-Car.
Driving from Orlando to Miami - Gulf Coast
Take the gulf coast route for a more interesting and diverse experience when driving from Orlando to Miami. Enjoy the beaches and seaside cities of Tampa, Fort Myers and Naples before trekking across the Everglades.
Ft. Lauderdale to Savannah Road Trip
Get a taste of the south on your journey from Fort Lauderdale to Savannah. Rent a convertible from Enterprise for the perfect road trip!
Orlando to Atlanta Road Trip
Enjoy the beauty of the southeastern U.S. on your drive from Orlando to Atlanta. History, great weather, and southern charm await you!
Road Trip from Miami to Key West - Extended Trip
Follow this road trip itinerary which takes you through Key Largo, Islamorada en route to Key West and the Southernmost point of the US.
Nashville to Pensacola
Want a getaway to Pensacola from Nashville? Driving may be your best option. Enterprise neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and enhanced vehicle cleaning procedures.
Nashville to Destin
Want a getaway to Destin from Nashville? Driving may be your best option. Enterprise neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and enhanced vehicle cleaning procedures.
Drive From St. Louis to Pensacola
Looking to go from St. Louis to Pensacola? Driving may be your best option. Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and modified cleaning procedures.
Beaches Near Atlanta
Looking for the nearest beaches to Atlanta? Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and enhanced vehicle cleaning procedures.
Drive From Atlanta to Orange Beach
Looking to go from Atlanta to Orange Beach? Driving may be your best option. Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and modified cleaning procedures.
Drive From Atlanta to Destin
Looking to go from Atlanta to Destin? Driving may be your best option. Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and modified cleaning procedures.
Atlanta to Pensacola
Want a getaway to Pensacola? Driving may be your best option. Enterprise neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and enhanced vehicle cleaning procedures.
Drive from Atlanta to Panama City Beach
Looking to go from Atlanta to Panama City Beach? Driving may be your best option. Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and modified cleaning procedures.
Florida Road Trips
Incredible weather, pristine beaches, delectable food, Amusement Parks galore and so much more; Florida is a treasure trove of activities. If you like collegate or professional sports, outdoor activities, fun in the sun or supreme relaxation, there is a place in Florida for you. Take a ride with Enterprise Rent-A-Car and start your journey from Florida today!
Beaches Near Orlando
Looking for the nearest beaches to Orlando? Our neighborhood locations are open and ready to serve you with curbside pickup and enhanced vehicle cleaning procedures.
Start A Reservation
Enjoy fast and easy car rental bookings from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at one of our 7,200 branches in cities, airports and neighborhoods near you.Reserve Now
Don't miss an excuse to hit the road: our latest offers delivered to your inbox.Sign Up