Sanibel gets all the glory as the best shelling beach in Florida, but I’m here to tell you that it’s actually Marco Island and the neighboring Ten Thousand Islands!
As the southernmost beach destination on Florida’s gulf coast, Marco Island doesn’t get as much traffic as Sanibel so the island’s best shelling beaches offer up incredible treasures. Plus there are a handful of islands around Marco Island (only accessible by boat) where the real magic is.
Shelling in the Ten Thousand Islands doesn’t even feel like shelling…it’s more like…harvesting. Shells that you would normally be THRILLED to find on any other beach are a dime a dozen on these islands and after the first hour or so you’ll find yourself getting pickier and pickier about which shells you’ll bend over to pick up.
Marco Island Shelling
So what kind of shells can you expect to find? Pretty much everything. Lightning whelks, tulips, alphabet cones, SAND DOLLARS, olives, Scotch bonnets, murex, scallops, fighting conchs, even the super rare junonia! And sooooo many more!
If you’re a casual sheller, just head out to the beach and take a look around. But if you’re wanting to find the BEST shells on Marco Island, read on for my favorite ways to go shelling on and around Marco plus my best tips for shelling in the area:
Marco Island Shelling Tours
Hands down my favorite way to go shelling on Marco Island is with a shelling tour. Now, most of the shelling tours don’t actually take you to Marco Island, but to the nearby Ten Thousand Islands. And let me tell you, the shelling in the Ten Thousand Islands is PHENOMENAL.
The Ten Thousand Islands is an ecosystem of mostly mangrove islands between Marco Island and the Everglades, but there are a few islands with sandy beaches that are absolute treasure troves. You can only get to these islands by boat, and I think the best way is to go on a tour with Treasure Seekers. I just did a tour with Treasure Seekers on my latest trip to Marco Island, and here’s everything you need to know:
Treasure Seekers is a small company that runs daily four hour tours from the Goodland Boat Ramp (about 15 minutes from most places on Marco Island). Their boats only take six shellers and in addition to the captain, each tour has a first mate who is a pro at finding the best spots on each island and helping you identify shells.
They’re experts at knowing where to go depending on the time of day, time of year, tides, weather, etc. And they’re really good at monitoring how many people are shelling in different spots (including other tour companies) so they’ll always take you to spots where you’ll have the best chance of finding treasures.
My tour departed at 7AM (the start time varies depending on the time of year) and within 10-15 minutes we were at the first spot. We started at Dickmans Island. Our captain let us off the boat at the south end of the island and then he went and anchored at the north end of the island and we were able to make our way up the beach at our own pace. We ended up spending a little over 2 hours on the island and it went by SO FAST.
I have never been to a shelling beach like that in my life. It was completely overwhelming. Usually on a beach, there’s more or less one line of shells up near the high tide line and maybe some in the shallow water. But there were shells EVERYWHERE on this beach so it was impossible just to pick a line and walk it and see most everything. I’m not exaggerating…the area for shelling was probably fifty feet wide all the way down the island!
I was pretty focused on finding sand dollars so I stayed mostly in the shallow water or the first five feet from the water. On Dickmans Island I found probably 30 sand dollars and I eventually stopped picking them up because there were just so many. But I found so many different kinds of shells at this spot and would’ve picked up a lot more if I hadn’t been so focused on the sand dollars. One lady on our boat found a rare junonia at this spot!
After we packed up at Dickmans Island, we headed over to Kice Island for a bit. This island is HUGE and we just saw a tiny piece of it but it’s a really beautiful island and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. And on the way back to the boat ramp, we found some dolphins that played in our wake!
Overall, I couldn’t have been more impressed with the shelling on this trip and the tour experience itself. It’s definitely something I’ll do again next time I’m in the area. I really want to go sometime when Shell Island is open because it’s supposed to be spectacular (it was closed for nesting season when we went but usually opens Sept 1).
RELATED: Where to Stay on Marco Island
I’ll do a section at the end of this post about tips for shelling and what to bring, but I’ll let you know how things worked out specifically on the boat (because I wasn’t super prepared). We had packed a couple of bags and had various shelling bags, a cooler with snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, hats, extra shirts and shoes, towels, and the stuff you’d normally have in your purse and for some reason I just assumed that we’d always be near the boat when we were shelling so I didn’t think too much about what I was going to actually carry with me. So when we got off the boat the first time and were going to shell across the whole distance of the island I wasn’t super prepared.
Looking back, I would’ve packed a small backpack with sunscreen (to reapply-do your first coat before you get on the boat), bug spray (we didn’t end up needing it but you never know), a water bottle, a container for sand dollars and maybe an extra shelling bag and then had either a hip/fanny pack or some kind of lanyard for my phone (because I like to be able to take pics and videos without having to get it out of my backpack). As far as what to wear, I felt like I had the right outfit. I would recommend a comfortable two piece bathing suit, swim shorts, a long sleeve lightweight sun shirt, hat, sunglasses, and water shoes (either the sock or sandal kind that strap to your feet-DO NOT wear flip flops).
Marco Island Kayak Shelling Tours
I’ll be honest, I’m never going to kayak when a boat is an option, but if you want to add a little adventure to your shelling expedition, book a kayak shelling tour with Southwest Florida Shell Guide. Ali launches her tour from a spot that allows you to paddle over to Dickmans Island (it’s not very far).
Keewaydin Island Shelling
If you want to shell on a semi deserted island but you’d rather do it on your own, take the Hemingway Water Shuttle over to Keewaydin Island and spend a few hours shelling on the barrier island. The shelling isn’t as good as it is as the places the two tours I mentioned above will take you to, but it’s decent and a more affordable option. I would recommend going on a weekday though as it turns into a bit of a party island on the weekends.
Tigertail Beach Shelling (& Sand Dollar Spit)
Tigertail Beach is by far the most popular beach on Marco Island (although the whole island is really one long stretch of sand) and it’s mostly because of the public access and the phenomenal shelling. Now I’ll be honest…it’s nowhere on the same level as the Ten Thousand Islands, but it’s a steady shelling spot and if I hadn’t been shelling on a tour, I would have been over the moon impressed (I found three sand dollars which I would consider a pretty big success normally).
It’s $8/car to park and there’s quite a bit of public parking, a cute cafe and rentals for paddle boards and kayaks.
But here’s the deal…at the area where you park your car (where all of the amenities are), there’s a small beach/muddy shore which is technically Tigertail Beach. That little beach sits on some brackish brown water surrounded by some mangroves and you either have to wade through it or walk around it to get to the main beach (on the ocean) also sometimes called Sand Dollar Spit.
See the graphics here to understand what I’m talking about.
The quickest way to get to the beach/ocean (where the shells are) is to wade across the “lagoon” and trek through a brushy trail. The water is usually 2-3 feet deep and I’m not going to lie…it’s pretty gross. It’s a sandy/muddy bottom so you can’t see what’s in the water ; ) but in the shallow parts there were a lot of little jellies. They didn’t bother me, but I would definitely recommend wearing shoes.
Now if the thought of wading through the swamp grosses you out, you can walk around it. From the main parking lot (by the cafe) around the lagoon and to the start of the beach it’s close to a mile and took me a solid 15 minutes (moderately paced walk). There is no shade, it’s VERY hot and I would NOT want to do this with kids. Tip: when you’re parking, park as far south as possible and take that entrance. It will save you a fair amount of time (it’s still a big walk though!).
The last thing I’ll say about logistics…if you’re staying on the beach on Marco Island, you may seriously consider walking up to Tigertail Beach. From the JW Marriott it’s about 1.5 miles and all things considered with where we parked and how long the walk was, we would have been better off walking especially since we just went for shelling (we weren’t there to set up camp for the day). Also, you can’t get into the parking lot until 8AM so if you walk you can get an early start on it, avoid the blazing heat, and get the best dibs on shells.
Now about the beach itself…it’s a beautiful beach and the farther you go down the “spit” the more remote it gets. The shelling was really good (better than anywhere I’ve been except for the Ten Thousand Islands) and it’s pretty picturesque too. I found several sand dollars (at midday), some olives, lightning whelks, and quite a few other types. And honestly I didn’t spend a super long time here because it was HOT and I was worried I didn’t have enough water to make the long trek back to the car so I think if you go early and you’re prepared to spend some time you’ll be very impressed with the shelling.
Tips for Shelling on Marco Island
No live shells! Like anywhere, make sure your shells aren’t home to any little critters and only take sand dollars that are the fossilized exoskeletons (aka dead).
Get some shelling bags before you go. You want ones with small netting/mesh. I got these which are basically a small messenger bag and they were PERFECT. I was very surprised with how much they held (comfortably) and wished I’d ordered a second set.
Take tupperware or some kind of container to protect the sand dollars. I goofed up on this one. I had read that I should have something for sand dollars but I really underestimated the situation (particularly at Dickmans Island) so all we had was a little plastic fruit container left over from the day before for two people. Well we filled that up in about 5 minutes. After my arms were full of sand dollars, I finally started just putting them in my shelling bag and hoping for the best. I made it home with about 30 but I’m not gonna lie I lost quite a few too.
Wear water shoes or sandals that strap onto your feet. Flip flops are not great when you’re wading through the water (especially if it’s muddy/there’s algae where you get off the boat). I wore a pair of strap-on Tevas and my mom found a pair of really nice water shoes in the gift shop at the JW Marriott. Both worked great.
Wear a sun shirt because the sun is intense. I HATE stopping to reapply sunscreen plus the sun just gets so hot on your skin so a lightweight sun shirt is essential. And maybe take a second one to change into if it’s cool and the first one gets wet.
If you don’t have pockets (most swim suits or shorts don’t have them), I’d recommend some kind of lanyard or hip pack for your phone/small essentials. I didn’t like having to dig in my backpack for my phone every time I wanted to take a picture.
It was super hot when we went (August), but if you’re going in cooler months I would imagine it could get kind of chilly on the boat going back to the dock. The boat goes really fast and if you’re at all damp, I’d want a towel or beach blanket to wrap up in.
Take water. On the tour, they had water, but I always like to take my own as well. And also the tour is only four hours, but it starts so early (probably before breakfast) and after two hours of shelling on the first beach I was HUNGRY. Whenever I’m in Florida and need snacks/beach food I always like to stop at Publix. They will make custom sub sandwiches but I love the little premade sliders they have.