As you can imagine, Hilton Head Island has a rich beach combing environment to offer! There are several varieties of sea shells to be discovered! The island has wildlife such as sea snails, clams, oysters, hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, and many other mollusks. Pictured here is a trail made by a sea snail digging thru the sand. Once these animals die, they either fall out of their shells or get eaten by other wildlife such as birds. If you find their shells empty, they are yours to take! Oysters are also extremely plentiful on and around the island. Oysters filter the water and help keep it clean. The adults can filter up to 2.5 gallons of water an hour which improves the water quality tremendously! Oysters help to create reefs as well, providing homes to many crabs, fish, and other small animals. Harvesting oysters can be disruptive to the animals these reefs protect and requires a license to do so, understanding the responsibility involved. If you are caught harvesting oysters without a license, you could be fined.
Hilton Head Island as well as the entire coastal South Carolina is famous for its sand dollars. It is always very exciting to make "the great find", however please don't let that excitement make you look over the fact that these are living things. Taking a live sand dollar from it's home is not only cruel, but it is also illegal. You can be fined $1,000 per sand dollar you are found with, or you could buy one at a gift shop for $2.00. How can you tell if a sand dollar is alive, you ask? These guys don't move, which makes it hard to understand that they are living things. Here is the sure way to tell which makes it much easier: fuzz! If you find a sand dollar and it has a fuzzy texture with fine hairs all over the bottom, it's alive! The live ones feel almost like velvet and they are also more rubbery while the "test" which is the skeleton of a dead sand dollar, is hard and rigid with a smooth texture and no fuzz. Also, the live sand dollars are darker in color and can even have a purplish tint to them.
Why not take a live sand dollar? They're not moving, and they would look better as a decoration in your house than they do in the water, right? Wrong! Sand dollars are not made to become decorations. They are an important part of our eco-system here on the island. They actually eat things like small crabs and other crustaceans and algae. Baby sand dollars also provide food to some fish and other sea life. Baby sand dollars are actually able to clone themselves if threatened to increase their chances of survival. If you find a baby sand dollar, never take it. Babies don't have as much cilia or fuzz on them, so it is very hard to tell if they are living or not. For their safety, it is best to leave them in their happy homes. Imagine being take out of your home and thrown into a bucket of bleach. This of course not only kills them, but causes a lot of stress to them prior. It is not a good way to die. There is no reason to take a sand dollar that is clearly living other than selfishness. Please be respectful of the ocean and everything that lives in it.
Starfish are also an exciting find for the beach combers of Hilton Head Island! The majority of times, they are buried in the sand but sometimes you will be able to witness a "dance". When starfish are exposed during low tide, they move closer to the water and this movement makes it look like they are dancing. Tourists like to take these guys, too which could also result in a $1,000 fine if caught. It is easy to tell if they are alive. They move around a lot when put into the water. Starfish have hundreds of little legs, as pictured here. If you find a starfish that isn't moving, turn it over and look at it's legs. A lot of the time, you will see the legs are actually moving, but the starfish was moving so slowly when it was on the ground, you thought it was being still. If you turn it over and notice the legs aren't moving, stick it in the water and see if it starts moving its legs. Sometimes if they are out in the sun too long, they become weak and start to conserve energy which gives the illusion they are not alive when they actually are. In these cases, you may have saved a life by reintroducing them to the water!
If you happen to come across shells that look like the kind pictured here, be careful! You may get pinched! Hilton Head Island offers the perfect environment for hermit crabs to frolic around especially during low tide. Some of these shells will be empty, but make sure you double check before putting it in your pocket! You might be in for a rude and abrupt surprise when digging for change later in the day.
Overall, there are many opportunities to find some really unique and unusual sea shells on the island to grow your collection, but remember to be responsible and respect the ocean and Hilton Head Island's ecosystem!