How to Find Beach Treasure on the Outer Banks

For as long as I can remember, beach treasure hunting has been one of my favorite pastimes! I think this has to do with the fact that it combines two of my very favorite things: the BEACH and the “thrill of the hunt!” With so many beautiful and fascinating things to find on the beach, the experience is different and exciting every single time.

Here’s everything you need to know to beach comb like a local and find treasures on OBX beaches.

What is Beach Combing?

There’s something about time spent on the shore beachcombing that has a soothing effect on our souls… the sea has a way of flipping a mental and emotional reset switch for us. (There’s a reason an endless number of songs and poetry are written about it!)

And so we comb the beach to clear our heads, calm our hearts, and joyfully fill our buckets to add to our Outer Banks beach treasure collections!

When & Where to Look for Shells

The beaches are constantly changing, especially here on the Outer Banks, given that these barrier islands are essentially a string of exposed and ever-shifting sand bars. This means that beachcombing is never the same twice, and the best spots to find shells and other treasures are constantly changing too!

But there are a few things we can count on…

  • The beaches are most ripe for hunting after a storm, when the sea has been churned up, bringing fresh treasure up from the deep and onto the shore!
  • And the low tide is a great time to search since more of the sea bed is exposed at that time.
  • When you find a shell bed, it’s time to stop and dig around!

Find a Shell Bed

Shell beds are areas around the shore break where a large concentration of shells accumulate together.

Shell beds often form near and around piers. These beds can consist of shells, shell fragments, pebbles, driftwood, crab shells, sea glass, and more.

And what’s the best way to find shell beds? Long walks on the beach, patience, and a keen eye! All of which makes the discovery richer and more meaningful.

Shell bed near a pier on an Outer Banks beach

7 Beach Treasures We’ve Found on the OBX

If you look hard enough. You can find just about anything on Outer Banks beaches.

Some of my favorite beach treasures to hunt for on these beaches are Whelk shells; Bi-valve mollusks such as Scallops, Cockles, Clams, Oysters, and Coquina; Starfish; Fulgurite; Driftwood, and of course, SEA GLASS!

Here are 7 of our favorite beach treasures we’ve found while beachcombing on the OBX.

#1: Sea Glass

SEA GLASS is probably our most prized beach treasure around the Outer Banks and something we have enjoyed collecting for decades! Sea Glass (or beach glass) is born from bottles and other glass objects tossed in the ocean (think shipwrecks here!)

The glass fragments are tumbled and made smooth by the waves and currents, resulting in small smooth “jewels.” (usually between the size of a pebble and a river rock.) The most common sea glass colors are white and brown.

Pebble like sea glass in green and light blue.
Rare sea glass colors like blue and green, pink, yellow, and red.

Other colors like blue and green are rare, while the most coveted pink, yellow and red is the rarest of treasures!

If you’re extra lucky you might find a piece of sea glass with markings, words, or shapes that help you identify their origin.

The Outer Banks is referred to as “The Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of the vast number of shipwrecks off these shores, the sea has produced.

#2: Clamshells and Other Bi-Valves

Outer Banks beaches are also full of bi-valve mollusk shells in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Scallops, Mussels, and Oysters are more native bi-valve mollusks that you might recognize.

If you have visited the Outer Banks, then you have likely dined on these fresh delicacies!

It’s easy and fun to find different varieties of bivalves and clamshells such as Quahog, Cockle, and Coquina on the OBX.

Quahog clam fragment used by Native Americans to make Wampum beads and jewelry.

Quahog clam fragments are ample on these shores. Not only do they make a beautiful collection with their variegated patterns in shades of purple, but they also have quite an interesting story to tell.

Since the times that this area was settled by Native Americans, Quahog clam fragments have been crafted into jewelry and craft beads called WAMPUM. For the early Native Americans, Wampum had deep ceremonial and spiritual significance.

Then in the 1600s, Wampum began to be used as currency between the Native Americans and the Colonists that had settled here in the New World. This practice continued for over 100 years!

#3: Whelk

Whelks have a beautifully spiraled shell and are sometimes mistaken for Conch Shells (Whelks prefer cooler waters than the tropical Conch). Whelk shells are a variety of Sea Snail and a part of a group of sea carnivores known as “drilling predators.”

Sea snails can drill a hole into the shell of another shellfish to consume the animal inside… they will even eat other Whelks (yuck!)

The Scotch Bonnet has a similar as the whelk, though more rounded features, and it is North Carolina’s state shell!

Spiraled whelk shell with blue tint held up on the beach
Whelk shell and a starfish together on the beach

#4: Starfish

Starfish are a rare find on the Outer Banks. Sometimes after a storm, you can find piles of them washed up on shore! But oftentimes, these starfish are still alive and should be gently returned to the sea.

#5: Fulgurite

One of the most fascinating beach discoveries is Fulgurite, also known as “Lightning Sand.” Fulgurite is formed when lightning strikes sand and the intense heat fuses the sand into a hard, wavy, or tube-like formation. (I think Fulgurite resembles a smooth piece of coral in appearance.)

The beach treasure also tells the story of the intense weather that passes over these barrier islands!

Fulgurite, formed from lightening striking sand on an Outer Banks beach.
Small piece of driftwood that washed ashore on the Outer Banks.

#6: Driftwood

Driftwood is wood that has washed ashore, sometimes in small pieces from something such as a shipwreck. Other times, an entire tree floats to shore!

By the time driftwood floats to shore, it has often been bleached by the sun and its edges are made smooth by crashing waves. Sometimes small animals have taken up residence and the piece may be covered in barnacles or have tunnels carved by boring animals!

On the Outer Banks, Driftwood is commonly made into works of art such as sculptures and I have even seen artists use shipwrecked driftwood to create wooden bowls!

Check out some of our creations from Outer Banks driftwood.

Large tree turned into driftwood.

#7: One Man’s Trash

Sometimes, the “treasures” we find on the beach are simply lost items (like the designer sunglasses I found underwater last summer). One man’s trash of forgotten and discarded toys or beach gear often lingers on the beach as night closes in after a long, hot summer day.

Or how about the time in 2007 when a shipping container filled with small bags of Doritos fell off of a cargo ship? Thousands of unopened bags of Doritos washed ashore on Hatteras Island & beachcombers filled their sacks with bags of chips that were still sealed and unspoiled…. now that’s my kind of beach treasure!

Tips for Finding Souvenirs By the Sea

One of the best things about beachcombing is that it doesn’t require any special equipment, financial investment, or special skills! I keep beachcombing to find souvenirs by the sea extremely simple.

Here are a few tips you can take with you on your next beachcombing adventure:

  • Always keep an empty ziplock bag in your beach bag to bring on my beach walks and fill with found treasures (my little sidekick usually has a plastic sand bucket that comes in handy too!)
  • Bring your phone along to take pictures, videos, or ask google to help me identify our finds.
  • Sometimes I also like to bring an extra bag for the less desirable items we find along the way. It’s great to leave the beach the way we found it, and even better when we can leave the beach cleaner than we found it.
Arrow beachcombing in the sand on the Outer Banks with her sand bucket.
Arrow beachcombing with her sand bucket.

Locally, there are some great organizations that spearhead group beach clean-ups like our “Adopt a Beach” program and the “OBX 5 Minute Beach Clean Up” that serve to keep our beaches beautiful!

So, next time you’re on the Outer Banks, be sure to walk the coastline with a watchful eye. The waves are always bringing interesting gifts to the shore for you to bring home with you.

At home, these collections make beautiful displays, each treasure telling a story and reminding us of the fond memories we made walking the beach and all the ways the sea reset our soul.

What are some interesting things you’ve collected over the years on the beach? Do you have a favorite beach treasure?

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