Last updated: 9/19/2022
The beaches of Sanibel Island are a little different than many of the beaches in Florida. It takes many trips before you really learn all the in’s and out’s of Sanibel’s unique beach ecosystem. There are a few things that I feel are absolutely essential to getting the full Sanibel Island beach experience, and several that you would never know unless you were a local.
10. Experience low tide Sanibel shelling at night
This is one of the most overlooked things to do on the beach, especially for families. Check the tide charts and find a night to go out on the beach in the dark during low tide. The amount of sea life that is out and about at night is remarkable, and you will find more shells than you can even imagine. One reason for this is nobody has been picking anything over yet, but also they are easier to see. Easier to see at night? How can that be? The key to this activity is headlamps. Yes, headlamps like you might use in a cave!
Wearing a headlamp allows you to shuffle through the ankle-deep water and look down into it. When you can look down into the water with a spotlight you can see huge conch shells and things you would never see during the day. I usually bring enough headlamps for the whole family (they are cheap and last years!). This is one activity that your kids will be talking about for YEARS. The Foxelli headlamp I linked below has a setting for red light as well, which is important when you are around the Sanibel sea turtles who are only on the beach at night. The red light will not disturb them when they are making nests on the beach.
9. Learn to use tide charts for Sanibel
So as you can see from above, the best shelling is at low tide. You can use tide charts to see exactly when the tide is lowest. I like to use the City of Sanibel’s charts which you can find here: https://www.mysanibel.com/Departments/Natural-Resources/Tides They seem to be the most accurate out of the ones I’ve tried. I just make a bookmark to it so I can check it easily. You can also find charts at various stores on the island. Kids these days have pretty limited attention spans, and it really helps if you take them out at low tide where the shells are EVERYWHERE. It’s hard to describe how many huge and beautiful shells are on this island unless you’ve seen it first hand.
8. Catch Sand Fleas!
Contrary to their name, sand fleas aren’t actually a flea or an insect. They are little crabs about the size of a quarter. They have no pinchers and are totally harmless and super fun for kids to catch and play with. The beaches of Sanibel are loaded with these tiny crabs, but unless you know where they hide you would never even know they are there. You will often see locals catching these elusive creatures to use for fishing bait. Sand fleas on the Sanibel Island beach hang out right at the edge of the water right below the top layer of sand. The best way to catch them is with a sifting sand scoop. You can buy a plastic one for around $10 but I can guarantee you they break within an hour (I know from experience). I like to get the sturdy metal scoop I link below, they last forever. An added bonus to sand flea hunting is you often find sharks teeth with your sifter scoop! This is another activity that kids LOVE.
7. Different ends of Sanibel can be a totally different beach
Sanibel Island is only 11 miles long, but you would be shocked at how much the beach and water can change from one end to the other. If you aren’t having any luck finding shells or the water just isn’t very clear, don’t be afraid to make a trip to either end. On the far East end of the island, you can find the Lighthouse park with tons of beach access and lots of parking; on the West end you will find Blind Pass, with a parking lot on either side of the pass. The currents that run along the beach change often, and can really change the beach day to day. There are days when the water on the lighthouse end is rough and murky but it’s calm and clear nearer to Blind Pass.
6. PACK WATER SHOES
This is hard to emphasize enough. As goofy as a grown man looks in water shoes they are essential if you are going to be doing lots of walking up and down the beach. Walking barefoot is fine but it can get painful after stepping on a few shells. Sanibel is a little different as far as sand goes. There will be areas of soft sand mixed in with areas of broken shells. I often find myself looking for shells and not paying attention to the broken shell pieces at my feet. Your feet will thank you if you get a comfortable pair of water shoes,
5. Eat early/late and be on the beach for sunset
If you avoid going out for dinner during the busy time and either go early or late you will never miss a sunset. Waiting in heavy dinner time traffic on Periwinkle while one of the world’s best sunsets is going down on the beach should be a sin. Being on the beach for sunset gives you a chance at seeing the fabled Sanibel Green Flash, and when you experience one you will know immediately what it is. You will see many locals leaving the beach a couple of hours before sunset. They wisely head back and get cleaned up for dinner, then head back down to the beach with a drink to watch the sunset. By this time most of the crowds have died down on the restaurants and traffic is at a minimum on Periwinkle. A perfect time to head to your favorite restaurant. Just avoiding the busy traffic time on Periwinkle will add hours to a week long vacation, while also keeping you sane. Check out our list of the best restaurants on Sanibel Island here: https://frequentislander.com/best-sanibel-island-restaurants-according-to-yelp-and-tripadvisor/
4. Thoroughly rinse shells before taking them back to your room
Even if your shells seem very clean and pleasant smelling on the beach, you have to rinse them off. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories of people waking up wondering what in the world smells like death. A quick rinse of your beach bounty will wash off any slime or film that gives off the smell when it dries. Almost all beach hotels and condo complexes are equipped with convenient shell cleaning stations right off the beach. If you haven’t booked a condo or hotel yet check out our guides for the top hotels and condo’s available for rent on Sanibel Island here: https://frequentislander.com/list-of-the-top-5-sanibel-island-beachfront-hotels/ and https://frequentislander.com/top-5-sanibel-island-condo-rental-locations/
3. Rent beach chairs and umbrellas, don’t buy them
The chairs and umbrellas you can buy on the island at various stores are very expensive, small, and extremely flimsy. For the price of buying one of these poor quality 4ft umbrellas, you can rent a commercial grade 7 1/2 ft umbrella that won’t turn into a kite and have you chasing it down the beach. Island Rental Services is a fantastic company located on Sanibel who makes quick free deliveries of beach equipment, rollaway beds, baby cribs, you name it. Their equipment is all commercial grade, always clean, and reasonably priced. Check out their website where you can reserve any of their items online: http://www.islandrentalservices.net/
2. Buy a mesh shell bag and take it with you on your trip
This seems like a simple thing but it can really make shelling on the beach more enjoyable, especially the cleaning. When you are out on the beach collecting shells a mesh shell bag lets the water drain off the shells while you are walking. There are lots of places to buy these bags on the island but most are small and they are very expensive. The bags I link below on Amazon are the best-rated bags I can find and mine have stood up for years of toting shells back and forth from the beach. The shoulder strap makes it really easy to haul back a full bag of large shells. Once you get your bag back to the shell cleaning area you can actually hose them off from inside the bag. I then usually hang the bag with the shells in them to dry. It saves so much time it’s unbelievable. Sometimes it’s the things that seem really small that end up being the most useful.
#1 Frequent Islander Top Tip:
Purchase a laminated guide to identifying the shells, starfish, fish and other sea life you will encounter on the beach. It makes it so much more fun when you can learn what it is that you just picked up, or how rare it might be. I love finding a cool starfish I saw on the beach and looking up what it was. When I’m fishing I often catch things that I’ve never seen before, and its really neat to have a laminated guide in your beach bag to figure out what things are. This is our favorite guide, as it is catered specifically to Sanibel and Captiva Island: