Shell of a Good Time

Winter is prime time to hunt seashells on the Texas coast

By Amanda Ogle

A wide beach with seashells under blue sky
South Padre Island. Photo by Kevin Stillman

It’s common to see vacationers in the summer months combing Texas beaches for pretty seashells to take home as souvenirs. But shell searching in winter is much more rewarding. “When we get a norther—a fast-moving cold front coming from the north that brings a quick drop in temperature—the strong winds associated with it can push water and waves farther out from their usual levels,” explains Tina Petway, curator of malacology and marine invertebrates at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “That causes some shells to become stranded and visible when they’re usually found in 2 to 15 feet of water.”

After a norther, beachcombers can find lightning whelks, coquinas, and shark’s eye moon snails scattered across the sand. It’s legal to collect empty shells on Texas beaches, but state laws protect some species in winter months. A fishing license with a saltwater fishing stamp, available from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department online and in some stores, is required to collect live whelks and other mollusks. Make sure the shell is empty before you take it home, as hermit crabs often call whelks and other shells home.

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Shell Talk

Tina Petway has worked with mollusks in most of the South Pacific Island nations, Asia, the Caribbean, and west Mexico. She has collected and studied mollusks for more than 60 years.

What’s the best time of day to go shelling?
During declining tides into the low tides, which usually happen twice a day. Checking local tide charts is the best way to find the prime time to go shelling. Generally, nighttime is the best for finding seashells because that is when they are active and searching for food or reproducing.

What types of shells should you throw back instead of keeping?
Some Texas laws now protect certain species of mollusks at some times of the year. Checking with TPWD for restrictions is always the best idea. It is hoped that a shell with a mollusk snail or a hermit crab in residence will be put back in the water to help it survive.

What should you bring to go shelling?
Bring a bucket with some plastic bags for more delicate shells. You may also want to carry a small shovel and sieve for sifting the sand to look for micro shells, as well as small jars to put them in.


Miles of Texas coastline


Number of species living in seashells on the Texas coast


Average age, in years, of a seashell washed up on the beach

See These Shells

Lightning whelk

The state seashell of Texas is one of the largest in the Gulf of Mexico. Make sure a hermit crab isn’t inhabiting the shell before collecting.

A pastel-colored shell turned on its side
A spiral-shaped tan shell

Shark eye moon snails

They have nothing to do with sharks, but the round shape and darker center colors make them resemble a shark’s eye.

A spiny white shell


Less common, these are considered rarities because of their sharp spikes.


A spiral-shaped white shell with a small opening

These shells look like spiral staircases. Mitchell’s wentletrap, with its brown band, is only found on the Gulf Coast.

A fan-shaped shell with red and white coloring

Lion's Paw

Also highly prized, lion’s paws are scallop shells in a variety of colors.

A fan-shaped shell with red and white coloring


The commonly found shells wash up after a wave and immediately begin burrowing in the sand.


Consider yourself lucky
if you find: Mitchell’s Wentletrap
Lion’s Paws Scallop
Flame Auger
Giant Eastern Murex

Shell or High Water

Test your shell-seeking skills on these Texas beaches

South Padre Island
On the north end, look for Atlantic cockles, lettered olives, sand dollars,
and pen shells.

Sea Rim State Park
At this coastal park in Sabine Pass, find white angel wings, brown moon snails, and shark’s eye moon snails.

Galveston Island, Freeport, and Surfside Beach
Unearth purple sea snails, Humphrey’s wentletraps, jingle shells, pear whelks, alternate tellin pairs, Hay’s rocksnails, disk dosinias, and many more.

From Matagorda to Corpus Christi, find Scotch bonnets, Atlantic calico scallops, brown banded wentletraps, Western Bay scallops, and others.

San José Island
Take a boat trip here to hunt at one of the best places for sand dollars.

From the December 2023 issue

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