If you’ve ever gone hunting for Shells, Shark’s Teeth, or Sea Glass on Topsail Island, you know how overwhelming it can seem at first glance. Looking down the island’s long expanse of shoreline that’s covered with sea-life, you absolutely must know what you’re looking for to be successful.
Lucky for you, I spent every summer of my childhood on Topsail Island with my Grandmother – a full-fledged shell/shark’s tooth/sea glass collecting addict.
Every morning, we would take a walk down to the shore, where we would hunt for these items until we found something she could add to her incredible collection.
On every shelf and every table in her beach house, there sat a glass jar filled to the brim with treasures. Of course, I have some fond memories of this time in my life, but I also learned a lot about collecting – which I can’t wait to share with you.
Time & Place
The number one thing to consider when combing the beach for treasures is the time of day. More specifically, it’s the level of the tide. Without question, the best time for beach combing is low tide.
That’s because the low tide is when you’ll have a much greater chance of discovering something good since the actual surface area of the shore is larger. Also, if you are searching over the course of a few days, low tide is when the beach will have “refreshed” itself with a new set of shells to comb through.
Because the cycle of the moon influences the tides, low tide happens at a different time every day. Don’t worry though, here’s a link to the Topsail Island Tide Chart.
Topsail Island is well-known for its beach, specifically the fact that it is unusually shell-covered. But of course, we all know that more doesn’t necessarily mean better.
The shells that finally made it to the shore for you to collect have been through quite a journey, and it’s no surprise that the trip broke the huge majority of them – it’s just how the ocean works. But without these shells, we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the beauty of unbroken shells, which are more of a rarity.
Going back to the opening of this piece it’s all about knowing what you’re looking for.
That’s why I decided to think back to my childhood and figure out the top 5 shells I remember finding on Topsail Island. These were Scotch Bonnets, Conchs, Sand Dollars, Scallops, and Slipper Shells (or “Lady Slippers” as my Grandma used to call them).
Slipper Shell (Lady Slipper)
I’ve been finding these particular shells my whole life, and my Grandma filled her jars with them. That’s how I know they’re out there, primed and ready for you to discover.
Finding Shark’s Teeth
Shark’s teeth are notoriously hard to find. Going back to the fact that the ocean breaks most shells before they reach the shore, it’s easy to see why.
Think about it for a moment. Broken shells are often small and sharp, exactly like shark’s teeth. So it makes sense that the teeth would blend in with everything else, making them difficult to find.
That’s why you should know the most common sharks in the Topsail Island area, and specifically how their teeth are shaped. They’re actually pretty easy to remember, and just think how impressed your friends will be when you can say, “That tooth came from a Bull Shark,” with absolute certainty!
So, the most common sharks that can be found near Topsail Island are the Bull Shark, Tiger Shark, and Sand Shark.
Bull Shark Tooth
Tiger Shark Tooth
Sand Shark Tooth
Growing up, my uncle (an old sailor) used to take the shark’s teeth I’d find and fashion them with a piece of wire for me to wear as a necklace.
I ended up having so many of these necklaces that I started giving them to friends, so I know that the shark’s teeth are there for those who know what to look for.
Finding Sea Glass
When many of us think of Sea Glass, we imagine it exactly like normal glass – shiny and sharp. In reality, the sea glass has been through the same difficult journey to the shore as the shells and shark’s teeth went through.
This process transformed the once “normal” glass into “sea” glass, which is smooth and opaque. Knowing this fact is the first step towards a successful sea glass hunt.
But you’ve got to know more than the shape and feel of the sea glass to become a beach combing master – you’ve got to know the colors to look for.
Theoretically, sea glass can come in any color imaginable, but three colors stand far above the rest in their popularity. These are white (which is just clear glass that has been “opaqued”), green, and brown.
White Sea Glass
Green Sea Glass
Brown Sea Glass
Sea glass was always my Grandma’s favorite thing to collect, and she even had a table top made entirely from the glass she had collected over the years. That’s how I know it’s out there waiting for you to bring home the next time you’re on Topsail Island.
After everything I’ve described in this article, it’s possible that you’re even more overwhelmed than before. But if there’s one aspect of “beach combing” that I want to leave you with above all others, it’s this: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
This is a cliche’ phrase for a good reason – it’s absolutely true.
Do you think I knew the difference between a Bull Shark tooth and a Tiger Shark tooth all those years ago when I was walking the beach with my grandmother? Not in the least, and yet those are some of the happiest memories of my life.
My point here, to bring it all home, is that every human being is unique, exactly like every shell, shark’s tooth, or piece of sea glass. That’s why, when all else fails, don’t get overwhelmed – just search for the things that make you happy.