The wonder of Shell Island

A nature lover's paradiseOne of the Emerald Coast’s finest treasures

No trip to Panama City Beach, Florida, is complete until you’ve taken a day trip to Shell Island. This undeveloped 700-acre barrier island is just a short boat shuttle from St. Andrews Bay. The island is actually a part of St. Andrews State Park. The sugary sand is so white you’ll think you are seeing snow! Lazing on the beach, snorkeling, nature walks and shell collecting are just some of the ways you can enjoy this pristine wildlife sanctuary.

You can spend an hour or all day here, but there are no facilities other than a snack boat stationed near the shore. So “go” before you go! You may wish to pack a picnic lunch and beverages, but leave your sleeping bags and tents back at your condo! If you miss the last shuttle at 5 p.m., you’ll be bedding down on a sandy beach with the local wildlife. And I don’t mean college kids.

Some of the locals I speak of consist of the world’s largest population of bottlenose dolphins, just offshore. Don’t be surprised if while you snorkel, fish or sit on your wave runner, that some of these beautiful, docile creatures swim up to you. Do keep your distance and just enjoy their antics. Try to resist petting or feeding them, it’s illegal. But take as many photos as you like.

The island itself plays host to a number of wild birds. Pelicans abound here, as well as sand pipers, gulls, and piping and snowy plovers. The warm clear water is teaming with sea urchins, and colorful tropical fish. You will certainly want to snorkel here.

The rock jetties provide safety and shelter to a wide variety of animal life. Graceful sea hares and slugs, as well as hermit crabs, can be found in as little as 2 inches of crystal clear water, near the rocks. You may also be fortunate enough to see the loggerhead sea turtles and endangered green sea turtles. If you find a nest, be sure to alert your shuttle captain, in case it hasn’t been recorded. The Choctawhatchee beach mice may also pay you a visit.

If you are fortunate enough to go shelling here, please collect only uninhabited shells. We want the sea creature population to continue thriving. So many shells, so little time! You can find sand dollars, conch shells, olive shells, horseshoe crabs, blue, ghost and stone crabs, moon snails and fighting conchs, just to name a few. A great time to collect shells is after a storm. I’d suggest bringing along a mesh collection bag, along with collection sticks (a long wooden or plastic handle with a net on the end, for collecting shells).

Other items you’ll want to pack in your beach bags are, bottled water, snacks, sunscreen, cameras, snorkel gear, towels, and the most important of all, vinegar. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I want you to be aware. From time to time, the Gulf coast will have a migration of jellyfish and it’s a good idea to inquire before you head out into the water. I’ve never been stung, but the ocean is their turf, and jellies have more rights to this natural habitat than you do. The water is very clear and most likely you’ll see them before you encounter them. Jellies can float anywhere along the whole coast of Florida, but stings are generally minor to nil. Keep your eyes out for the occasional man-of-war jelly. Their sting can ruin your day, but I’ve found few of them here. Application of vinegar, followed with a rinse of seawater, not fresh, will help neutralize the sting. I never head to the beach without it. Always head warnings from officials, and pay attention to the beach flags. Purple flags signify dangerous marine animals in the area, such as rays, jellies, sharks, etc. I’ve yet to see a purple flag flying in the wind, but maybe I was lucky.

Back to the sand. The pure white sand of Shell Island will not burn your feet! The bright white powder-soft sand was stunning. It’s so clean it squeaks as you walk through it barefooted. Because of its color, the sand stays comfortable under your feet, even on the hottest days. Sea oats and grasses help keep the sand from eroding and it’s strictly prohibited to pull it up anywhere in Florida. There are no shelters here, so if you burn easily, you may also want to bring along sunscreen and an umbrella.

Shell Island is what this slice of Florida’s Panhandle used to be. Before man brought the condos, merchants and restaurants here, the residents flew and swam and crawled along these virgin shores. We are so fortunate to be able to share, if only for a day, the warm sand and temperate waters with the creatures of Shell Island and St. Andrew’s State Park. I look forward to returning next summer. I’ll bring my picnic lunch, my towel and my camera. I’ll go if for no other reason than to capture one precious moment in time, while I can. I pray that the true natives of this land continue to enjoy their home.