Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints - footprints in sand

Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints

I believe Chief Seattle had it right when he said, “Take nothing but memories. Leave nothing but footprints.” This quote has come to mind many times over the past month, as Stewart and I have visited our lovely beach here in Madeira Beach, FL. We enjoy the many experiences this area has to offer and appreciate the beauty of the many birds that visit us right in our backyard, manatees swimming by and dolphins jumping near our dock.

Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints
Pelican Footprint

This is why is disturbs us to see the many vacationers who remove shells and sand dollars from our beaches that are still alive. I have decided to post about how to tell when sea creatures are living as well as the laws in Florida regarding your precious living souvenirs.


First, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees recreational sea shell collecting in the state. While the collection of most dead shells is permitted across the state, collectors planning on taking living shells from the shoreline or water for personal use must hold a recreational saltwater fishing license if the shell contains a living organism and can not be sold unless you hold a commercial saltwater products license. In other words, if a shell or sea creature is living or has a living organism within it, it is illegal to take them out of the water or off shore unless you are licensed to do so. This includes sand dollars. Collection of the Bahama Starfish and live Queen Conchs is prohibited across the state. Before collecting shells on any beach, collectors should review local laws as several counties (such as Lee County and Manatee County), state parks, national parks and wildlife refuges set additional requirements on the type of shells that can be harvested. There are also limits on how many of each species can be collected depending on what license you hold.

Take Only Memories, Leave Only Footprints
Welk; Please notice the living organism inside this Welk that was observed during low tide in Boca Ciega Bay

Please see the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website for more details.


Sanibel Island, FL is a very popular and internationally recognized shelling beach. According to Travel & Leisure Magazine, the best spot is Bowman’s Beach, on the northern end of the Gulf-facing beaches almost to Captiva Island. You can find Coquinas, scallops, whelks, and sand dollars here.

The Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola, FL has also been named in the Top Ten best shelling beaches. It is especially known for producing ‘Hurricane Balls’. Produced by big storms, these are egg shaped creations resulting from the motion of the waves during a Gulf storm. They resemble a ball made of straw, palmetto grass and seaweed and are commonly wrapped tightly around a core object like a shell or small stone and are tossed up onto the sand. You can also find Comb bittersweets, coquinas, ceriths, common nutmegs, alphabet cones, lucinas, sand dollars, and augers.

A shell nestled into the sand on Madeira Beach during low tide and sunset
A shell nestled into the sand on Madeira Beach during low tide and sunset

Other great shelling locations in Florida include Cedar Key (west of Ocala), Panama City Beach (including Shell Island), Little Talbot Island State Park (south of Amelia Island) and Venice Beach (popular for shark’s teeth).


One can usually easily tell if a specimen is alive by looking inside the shell or feeling it. Sand dollars have a fuzzy outer coating to them when they are still alive. These little bristles are actually legs that they use to move around on the ocean floor. If they are a gray/ green color and are fuzzy to the touch, they are alive. Please gently place them back in the water on the floor and leave them be. Other shells may be harder to tell, such as welks, since they are curved and could have a crab or mussel up inside the shell. If you have any doubts whatsoever, please do not remove it from the water. I have heard horror stories about people collecting shells and boiling them at home, only to have a dead crab pop out of it. Do not take a shell if there is or may be a living creature inside. I see many children removing sand dollars from the beach by the dozen – all alive. Although there may not be signs posted, I assure you that you can be ticketed and fined (up to 500$ per shell for a first time offender!) for removing these creatures from the water. Please educate your children before your trip regarding the rules of shelling.


There are many stores along the beaches that sell properly collected shells. One of my favorites here in John’s Pass Village is Island Rags and Gifts (formerly Merry Mouse). They have buckets of beautiful shells as soon as you walk in the door and they have many other souvenirs as well.


See the John’s Pass Village website for many other shopping options!

We love having visitors from all over enjoy our beaches, marvel at our wildlife in their natural habitat and share their experiences with friends. Please be kind to this beautiful place, because while it is a popular tourist destination, it is not immune to the amount of traffic we get every year. Please help make it a place that your children and grandchildren can visit as well, by taking care in what you collect and what you leave behind.

Creatively Yours,

Amanda Pratt


*All photos (c)Amanda Pratt **Do not Download, Copy or Use without Permission