Sea Shelling in Swansboro Along the NC Coast


I grew up in the deepest of the Deep South, a place where meteorologists don’t report heat indexes but rather “sweltering” scales. So, I’m not one to sunbathe on the beach for more heat and sweat. Taking a cruise to sandbars to search for seashells with cool eateries before and after is more attuned to this nature lover’s heart. 

Capt. Darryl Marsh to the rescue. 

Marsh operates Marsh Cruises in Swansboro, North Carolina, offering pretty much anything to those who rent his services aboard his 25-foot Bay Rider Skiff — fishing, photography, birding and yes, shelling. Our trip consisted of skirting a couple miles of marshlands at low tide and pausing at sandbars within sight of the wide Atlantic Ocean.

Marsh parked the skiff on a wide deserted sandbar with the ocean licking at its eastern side. Waves were calm, the sun shone brightly and, thank you Jesus, there was a cool breeze on my face. Capt. Marsh handed us all plastic bags for whatever we may find, pointed out a course of action for us to follow and wished us luck.

“Have fun and I’ll pick you up on the far side of the sandbar in an hour and a half,” he told us.

And off we went.


Before You Go

Fortify yourself with a hearty breakfast at Yana’s Ye Olde Drug Store Restaurant, an adorable ’50s-theme joint in the heart of historic Swansboro. John John Sloan runs this establishment with his grandmother, Evelyn Moore, also known as “Yana Mama.” The restaurant is filled with memorabilia collected over the years by Moore, along with an Elvis statue at front. It’s open for breakfast and lunch, but be sure to order the delicious fruit fritters, a family recipe.

And don’t worry about calories, you’ll walk those off.

What You’ll Find

The water was warm and only up to my ankles as I descended the boat. I wore boat shoes for the trip, the waterproof kind that protect your feet but allow water to flow through. These come in handy while crossing hot sand, but once I realized the sand wasn’t scalding and the water deliciously refreshing, I took them off and let my toes relish the feelings of sand and sea.

At first, we got excited about the massive scallop shells that appeared to be everywhere and in a variety of colors. I saw a collection of these as creative vessels for appetizers and slipped a few into my bag.

I discovered a small calico scallop shining purple under the waters, then got excited the lettered olive shell, even though the top was missing from its long tube. 

And then came the whelks. They come in various sizes, and naturally you’ll want to find the big ones that resemble conch shells. I found several smaller varieties in different colors, all sporting that distinctive spiral shape with the sound of the ocean emanating from the center.


What’s the Difference?

If you’re wondering, conch shells, the ones you find in South Florida and use their inside critters for chowders and as conch fritters, thrive in tropical waters, so North Carolina is out of their range. The inside critters are also herbivores, meaning they live on vegetation.

Whelks are similar in appearance, sporting those spiral shapes and carrying the sound of the sea, but they prefer cooler waters like those off the North Carolina coast. Their diets, unlike conch, veer toward meat. The critters who live inside whelk shells are also mostly female.


Finding Georgia’s State Seashell

My big haul for the day was a Knobbed Whelk, considered the official seashell of the state of Georgia. (It’s also the state seashell of New Jersey but this is a Southern blog.) This whelk contains lovely colors on top of its whorled shell with heavy spines and knobs, hence the name, and reds and oranges inside its mouth. 

According to the Georgia Legislature, the shell’s semi-glossy surface is “characterized by ocher striations resulting from the minerals present in the coastal waters of Georgia.” Since I moved to Georgia last winter, I was especially excited. 


To Celebrate Your Haul

By the end of our trip, we had traversed that long sandbar, crossed through open waters (still just above the ankles because of low tide) and explored other sandbars. We concluded our fun trip with a former crab shell that sported a design resembling ’60s home décor, several keyhole sand dollars (their five slots look like keyholes) and broken whelks that offered a look inside, something resembling a spiral staircase.

By noon, it was time to eat again. We washed our haul, dropped them off at our accommodations — the delightful Serenity by the Sea house with three bedrooms and baths with lots of rooms for relaxation — and headed to lunch at Swansboro Food & Beverage. We arrived hot and a bit sweaty but our awesome waitress, Trina, took good care of us, even massaging our sore neck muscles from all that leaning over searching for shells. 

We started with the warm blackened chicken dip that come with the most amazing fried red tortilla chips. I relished the Company grilled cheese sandwich, which combines pimento cheese, tomato slices, bacon and a slightly spicy jalapeno jelly. A cold North Carolina beer topped off our lunch.

All in all, what a perfect summer outing.


For more information on this area and its many ways to get on the water, visit the Swansboro and Onslow County NC tourism website.

This article was written by Cheré Coen

Read more of our North Carolina posts at:

Calabash: A Coastal Adventure

The Best Day Hikes in NC

Where to Eat and Drink in Fayetteville

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