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A Museum for Shells

Encased in glass at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum on Sanibel Island, the Junonia-a brown-spotted, coiled shell-is the ultimate treasure for shellers. Even on such shelling paradises as Sanibel and Captiva islands, the chances of finding the Junonia are one in 1,000.

It's that type of challenge, along with extensive information about shelling, that makes the only museum in the United States solely devoted to shells a mecca for those who plan on perusing local beaches for the fragile wonders. Be aware, though, that it is illegal in Lee County to collect most live mollusks (you'll see the animal still attached) as well as sand dollars, starfish and sea urchins. To play it safe, collect empty shells.

The museum-an octagon-shaped building located near J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge-holds tiny treasures chronicling the history of shelling. Exhibits ranging from shell art to why shells wash ashore are housed in the Great Hall of Shells, an open room featuring cases of collectibles from all over the world. One helpful display preps visitors for common shells on Sanibel, and educational games and exhibits appeal to kids. The museum library is home to an expansive collection admired by scientists worldwide.

The museum's friendly volunteers-shelling aficionados, too-admit they're constantly asked about the best places and times to shell. Their tips? Go out early in the morning (don't be surprised to have other shell-seekers joining you with flashlights) and after the lowest low tide. The best times of the year are early to mid-January and early to mid-April, preferably two to three days after a northern front has kept people off the beach. As for the particular beach, treasures have been found on Gulf-front beaches from the Lighthouse (the smaller shells are generally found toward this end of the island) to North Captiva (generally home to the larger shells). But "any beach on any given day may be great," adds volunteer Adi Kupfer.

The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, 3075 Sanibel Captiva Road, Sanibel Island, (239) 395-2233. $5 adult, $3 ages 8 to 16 and free for children 7 and under. Annual membership including free admission, guest passes, advance notice of special events, museum store discounts and other benefits start at $25. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. www.shellmuseum.org

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