How and Where to Find Sea Shells on Your Hawaiian Vacation
Where to Find Seashells in Hawaii
Hawaii is known for its beautiful beaches, but those beaches are not the treasure trove of sea shells that you might find on the beaches of the mainland United States.
Our pounding waves and coral reefs tend to give shells quite a beating before they reach the shore. But with a little persistence you can find some of the most unique and beautiful shells in the world, and contrary to what you may have heard, it’s perfectly legal to collect them.
Below you’ll find a list of my favorite Hawaiian seashells and where they can be found, along with the prize shell I’m still looking to find.
Cones, Cowries, and Harps – Hawaiian Shells Identification
Every shell in the picture above is one that my family has found in Hawaii (unless some kid snuck one in there when I wasn’t looking!).
I have fond memories associated with many of them, especially the large cone shell in the lower right hand corner (the one that looks like an upside-down ice cream cone with mountains on it). That was the first shell I found the first time I went scuba diving. Little did I know that I should have checked to make sure that the creature (highly poisonous) wasn’t still inside! Luckily, it wasn’t. To get an idea of the scale, that shell measures just over three inches.
Hawaiian Cowrie Shells – Most Common
Cowries are by far the most common collectible sea shell in Hawaii. Hawaii has over 35 species of cowries and they can be found both on the beach and in the water. Ancient Hawaiians used the cowry for food, jewelry, and even octopus lures. Their beautiful shiny appearance comes from the mantle of the animal, that reaches over the shell like a protective cape.
To find cowries, try going to the beach at low tide. Tide charts are available everywhere in Hawaii, even in the phone book. We’ve had a lot of success looking on the ocean side of tide pools.
I was wondering where to find shells on Oahu? The largest cowry we’ve found measures over four inches and it was found while scuba diving on Oahu.
The Far Edge of a Tide Pool is Where to Look for Cowries
As long as the waves aren’t too big, you can search for cowry shells on the ocean side of tide pools. They often get stuck in the cracks there – this tip was given to me by a marine biologist with a huge collection of shells. Just be sure to keep your eye on the waves.
HawaiianCone Shells – Careful, Cone Snails Can Be Deadly!
Isn’t this shell beautiful? Collecting cone shells is an activity best left to adults since the snail inside is deadly (minor detail!). The cone snail has a stinger that’s like a tooth that it uses to harpoon its prey. The shells can commonly be found while snorkeling in shallow water. Try flipping it over with a stick to make sure that the snail is not still inside.
The famous puka shells are actually not a type of shell at all, they’re just worn down cone shells that have a hole, or puka, in them. Ancient Hawaiians believed that puka shell necklaces would protect the wearer from harm, so they were often worn by sailors on long trips. You can easily find enough shells with “pukas” in them to make a necklace on most any beach in Hawaii.
Harp Shell – Rosy Harp Strings
This is my personal favorite since it looks like a Hawaiian sunset. Harp shells have an unbelievable kaleidoscope of pinks that I’ve never seen anywhere else in nature. They get their name from the ribs on the shell that look like strings of a harp, and they can be found in shallow tide pools.
Collector Sea Urchins – Beautiful purple shells
These are technically not sea shells, but rather the exoskeletons of the sea urchins that travel through the tide pools collecting bits of shells and seaweed on their backs to disguise themselves. When the animal dies, it leaves this beautiful purple shell that shines like a Christmas ornament in the water. Kids love looking for these little beauties and you don’t have to worry about the creature still being inside. They’re found in tide pools throughout Hawaii. To intensify their color, you can coat them with a clear coat of acrylic.
Sea Biscuit – Rare, but beautiful find
I’d never seen one of these sea biscuits until my son found one last year – isn’t it beautiful? Like sea urchins, the sea biscuit is not actually a shell, but rather a skeleton. They are found in shallow muddy or sandy areas. Isn’t it beautiful?
The Ultimate Find – Triton’s Trumpet
Rare shell, but the animal inside is a valuable predator
If you’ve been to a professional luau in Hawaii, you’ve probably seen this shell blown like a horn. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have conch shells in Hawaii, although we do have a type of helmet shell that looks similar. According to Greek mythology, Triton was a god who could calm the seas by blowing his shell trumpet. In Hawaiian this shell is known as “pu” and it is blown to announce the opening of the Hawaii State legislature, as well as at hula festivals and weddings.
The shells can be found in shallow water, but they are rare. If you do find one, please make sure that the animal is not still inside. Triton’s trumpets are vital to the health of the coral reef since they feed on the destructive Crown of Thorns starfish.
Top Five Things to Remember When Collecting Shells
- Never, ever turn your back on the ocean! Hawaii’s waves can be rough and unpredictable.
- Shell collecting is perfectly legal in Hawaii, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, as long as you don’t take more than you need for personal use. Shell collecting is only prohibited in Marine Conservation Districts.
- Never take a shell that has an animal still in it, no matter how much you really want it.
- Check the tide charts and go collecting at low tide when the shells are most likely to be uncovered.
- Respect the ocean and the beach – please don’t litter!
I believe, if you are fond of sea shells this article will help you a lot to enjoy the Hawaiian islands and beaches in your next vacation. Please don’t forget to share your experiences with us.