A guide to shells you’ll find at Myrtle Beach

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With 60 miles of broad and beautiful beach, it's no wonder the Grand Strand is a popular vacation destination. One favorite activity among beachgoers — besides swimming, lounging and generally relaxing — is hunting the beach for shells.

Shell hunting is fun and fascinating, but knowing what you're looking for can make it all the more so.

The lettered olive — South Carolina's state shell — is among the most common shells you'll find. It's a small, olive-green colored shell shaped like a tube with a pointy end and darker striations. Its original inhabitant was a large predatory sea snail (large being relative — the shell is only about 2.5 inches long).

Another common shell is the turkey-wing shell, otherwise known as the shell of the arca zebra, a type of ark clam common on the Atlantic coast. This 2-inch shell is boldly striped with dark brown and white, looking somewhat like zebra stripes, and it is shaped like a turkey wing.

If you're lucky, you may also see knobbed or channel whelk shells. These are the shells of a very large sea snail (channel whelk shells can be up 5-8 inches long, while knobbed whelks can reach 12 inches). With a beautiful spiral on one end and a pointy opening on the other, these are “classic” looking seashells.

Giant heart cockles are a bivalve with a distinctive ridged shell — think clamshell, but add deep, narrow ridges radiating from the hinge of the shell.

The shark-eye or Atlantic moon snail is among the prettiest shells on the Carolina coast. The shell of this predatory snail ranges from gray to tan and is smooth and roughly spherical. It measures from a quarter inch up to five inches in diameter.

Though they are not shells, sand dollars and sea urchins are prized finds on the beach (sand dollars are a kind of flattened sea urchin, and their “shells” are actually a rigid skeleton known as a test). You may even find shark teeth on the beach!

This shell identification page is a good place to look if you want to ID some of your Myrtle Beach finds. Shell identification books are also available at local shops.

As for where to go to find shells, try looking in the areas least frequented by people. Garden City and Surfside beaches are good choices, and so is Pawleys Island. Look during the first low tide of the day for the best hunting, where dry and wet sand meet. Larger shells are often too heavy to be pushed ashore by the tide, so check the water's edge as well. Shell hunting is often better just after a big storm.

Be sure to never take a shell containing a live animal. Peer inside snail and whelk shells to be sure no one is inside. Sand dollars are dead if they are white and smooth — live ones are brown and hairy. If in doubt leave it on the beach.

Happy hunting!

(posted 6/2/14)