Winter Shelling on North Carolina's Bear Island Can Yield Big Rewards

The off-season is prime time for finding sand dollars, Scotch bonnets, whelks, and fossilized shark teeth.

Finding Tiny Sand Dollar on Beach
Photo: db_beyer/Getty Images

In the summer, boat captain Darryl Marsh earns his income shuttling seashell-seeking tourists through the backwaters off the coast of Swansboro, North Carolina, to idyllic Bear Island. But it's the off-season, when lower temperatures scare all but the hardiest tourists away, that he loves.

In a recent profile for Our State magazine, Captain Marsh, as he is known, revealed a tantalizing shelling secret: the off-season means sand dollars. Lots and lots of sand dollars.

"You've got to be willing to be cold and wear lined boots," he told the magazine. "But you wouldn't believe what you can find."

For stalwart shell seekers, winter is prime time to find not only sand dollars, but Scotch bonnets, and whelks, too.

"There's less competition out there, because it's a sturdy person who beachcombs in January," Terri Kirby Hathaway, a marine education specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant, explained to Our State. "But also, the waves are usually stronger, so that means more stuff might get brought up from the deep."

Marsh, who has spent the last 13 years exploring the area's various sandbars and islands, doesn't just know where to look—he also knows when. Hitting the right spots when the tide is low is a given, but shelling is anything but predictable.

"I've had people come back with 50 sand dollars out here," he recalled. "And then we come back out the next day, and nothing."

But it's those kinds of inconsistencies that fuel his passion for the hunt.

WATCH: The Best Southern Beaches for Avid Shellers

And sand dollars aren't the only thing Marsh and his passengers are after. On a tiny island just beyond the Hammocks Beach ferry landing he also has a secret spot for finding fossilized shark teeth.

Think you've got what it takes for a wintertime shelling adventure with Captain Marsh? Visit for rates and information.

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