Ask people who have strolled the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida and they'll tell you "shelling" is a serious pastime, with thousands of beachgoers sifting daily though miles of shells left behind by dropping tides.

"Shelling down South is awesome," says Stephen Tettelbach, 60, a passionate shell collector from Cutchogue. "But it's good on Long Island, too -- and there's a lot less competition here. We don't have mind-boggling quantities of shells, but we do have amazingly beautiful varieties and variations."

Indeed, almost any local beach is likely to offer interesting seashells to discover. Gathering a few can be a quiet, introspective task, a fun date or the basis for a full-fledged family outing.

See alsoLI's ultimate beach guide

"It's a good way to slow down the pace of life and get to that beach you keep threatening to visit," assures Sue Wuehler, parks manager at Orient State Park, one of Long Island's better shelling locations. "Plus, it's a great way for kids to learn about the environment because every shell has a tale to tell."

IN SEARCH OF SHELLS

No permits are required when gathering shells by hand at local beaches and you're free to collect as many as you'd like at state-governed spots such as Jones Beach and Orient Beach, according to officials. Be aware that county beaches and parks require visitors to leave the natural setting as-is, so you shouldn't take lots of shells home.

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Since different kinds of shellfish prefer different environments, each beach is unique in its offerings. For example, hard clams, razor clams, soft clams and slipper snails (also known as quarterdecks) are abundant along South Shore bays. Rocky Long Island Sound beaches, however, have a mix of slipper shells, mussels, moon shells, jingle shells, oysters and whelks.

The South Shore ocean beaches, meanwhile, tend to give up sturdy coquina shells that look like tiny clams, and large, sturdy shells (think surf clams or fully grown oysters) that can measure 10 inches long and withstand the pounding of a heavy surf. For a mix of scallop, jingle, whelk and slipper shells, the East End bays and harbors are primary points.

FINDING YOUR FAVORITE

Roseann Naples, 59, of Center Moriches makes home-crafted shell items and sells them under the banner "Rosey" at street fairs across Long Island. "I'll gather a bunch of shells that look pretty or interesting, then cull them until only the most splendid remain. Those I'll paint or use in arts, crafts and decorations," she says. "I really like moon shells and surf clams."

Tettelbach, meanwhile, has a soft spot for scallop shells, which makes sense since the Long Island University marine biologist is co-leader of a joint program with Cornell Cooperative Extension to restore Peconic Bay scallop populations and fisheries.

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"It's hard to beat Long Island when it comes to the clicking bivalves," he says. "There's so many beautiful variations ranging from white or yellow, to orange, red, brown, pink, purple, striped and black. That's especially interesting because many mollusks are nocturnal and have very poor vision. Why then, do they do they have such an array of colors? Scientists are still guessing."

BURIED TREASURES

Aside from simply walking the beach, experienced shellers like Tettelbach and Naples use a few tricks to come across special finds.

"Head out after a storm or strong onshore winds," suggests Tettelbach. "That's when uncommon shells are likely to get pushed up the beach. Check the high tide line, the low tide line and also the storm tide line. That last one, the furthest spot that storm waves reach, often holds interesting stuff. You'll also find hidden treasures in clumps of seaweed that obscure the vision of seagulls and novice collectors."

Naples suggested would-be shellers get out early in the morning or immediately after a storm, before others have a chance to make their rounds. "Another option," she says, "is wading at low tide to intercept shells before they hit the beach."

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STARTING POINTS FOR SHELLING

SHELLING HOT SPOTS

Orient Beach State Park

INFO 631-323-2440

FEE $10

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This beach offers 45,000 feet of ideal shelling shoreline along Gardiners Bay. You'll find scallop, slipper and jingle shells in an amazing array of colors, hard clams, oysters, mussels, whelks, plus an occasional sand dollar or starfish.

Fire Island National Seashore

INFO 631-687-4750

FEE Free

Accessible by ferry, private boat or car, this 26-mile stretch of barrier beach offers both bay and ocean access. Patrol the low tide line, high tide and storm lines after a hard onshore breeze for a mix of giant surf clam shells, oyster shells, coquinas and small black, purple or reddish brown scallop shells. Car access available from Fire Island Lighthouse or the Wilderness Visitor Center at Smith Point.

Hobart Beach, Eaton's Neck

INFO 631-261-7574

FEE $20 Huntington Town residents; $30 nonresidents

This shelling honey hole features expansive beaches on both Northport Bay and Long Island Sound. The Sound side plays hosts to slipper shells, moon snails, whelks, hard clams, surf clams and jingle shells. The bay side sports hard clams, soft clams, razor clams, oyster shells, whelks and sometimes even an arrowhead. To find a shelling jackpot, check the southernmost tip of the peninsular where bands of shells several feet thick are sometimes piled following severe storms.

NOTE: While no special permits are needed to gather sea shells by hand in New York State, the taking of live shellfish may require a town, village, county or state license depending on the specific location and the species gathered.

CARE AND FEEDING OF SEASHELLS

Most seashells you'll collect will have vibrant colors. That's probably why you picked them up in the first place. Once you get home and your treasures dry out, however, they may look dull and boring. How do you restore the luster?

CLEAN UP Soak each shell in bleach diluted with water. That should kill any attached seaweed or other organisms, which you can then remove using a rough sponge or sacrificial toothbrush. After rinsing and allowing to dry, rub some baby oil on each shell and the shine should bounce back. Repeat as needed.

POLISH If using shells in art and crafts, or for a permanent solution to fading colors, use a fine paintbrush to apply a clear, matte finish varnish after cleaning. To prevent scuffing freshly varnished shells, allow double the suggested drying time before handling.