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How To Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

In this article, learn about Destin Florida shelling and how to find sand dollars at the beach. Also, I show you the best locations to find sand dollars, starfish, and more.

Maybe you want to collect sand dollars as a souvenir to remind you of your beach vacation.
Or, maybe you want to use sand dollars to make an ocean table or wall art piece.

Whatever the reason, the tips I show you in this article will fill your pockets with sea cookies while shelling in Destin, Florida.

As a child growing up on the beaches in Destin Florida, I spent an enormous amount of time in the water.
I spent countless hours searching the shallow waters off the beach for lost items from tourists, sand dollars, shells, and sea life.

I still love to put on my snorkel & mask, throw one of my kids on my back, and glide on top of the salty water searching for cool things.

Things I Use to Find Sand Dollars

snorkeling for sand dollars - Destin Florida beach

What is a Sand Dollar?

I feel it is important to learn a small amount about sand dollars before you scoop them up.
Because they are interesting creatures and this knowledge will keep you from breaking the law.
More on this later..

Essentially, sand dollars (also known as mermaid coins, sea cookie, snapper biscuit, or pansy shell) are flat, burrowing sea urchins called an echinoid.
There are many other scientific facts and names, but I won’t bore you with those details.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

Obviously, the nickname ‘sand dollar’ comes from their similarity to silver dollars.

Sand Dollar ‘Test’

Normally, when people think of sand dollars, they think of a sea creature that is white with a round shape.
This is actually the sand dollar’s skeleton, called a ‘test’, which is a white or grayish white with a star-shaped marking in the center.

When a sand dollar is alive, the short, velvety spines cover their test.
As a result, this makes them look from reddish brown to purple.

Before I share my best tips on how to find sand dollars at the beach, there are rules and regulations regarding Destin Florida shelling.
You should know about these rules as they will prevent you from breaking the law and/or getting scorned by a local.

Destin Florida Shelling

First, laws tend to bore and confuse people.
So, a good rule of thumb to follow when collecting seashells and sand dollars on the beach is:

  • Leave it alone if the sand dollar is alive or if the seashell has a living creature inside.

For example, this seashell has a crab inside. Therefore, do not keep this seashell.

seashell with living creature inside

If the sand dollar is dead, re-verify it is no longer living (instructions on how to do this in the next section) and take it as a souvenir.

Is it illegal to take sand dollars off the beach in Florida?

I encourage you to visit the Florida Wildlife Conservation website and click on “Recreational Regulations” and “Seashells”.

How to Tell if a Sand Dollar is Alive or Not?

If the sand dollar is reddish brown or purple, it is alive.
Also, live sand dollars normally hang out further in the water.
If the sand dollar is white or grayish-white, it is likely dead.
The spines of a sand dollar fall off shortly after they die, which reveals the grayish-white ‘test’ or skeleton.

Sand dollars are not like seashells and cannot live outside of water for even a few minutes.
More importantly, they are living things that may need your help to get back to safety.

A quick test to verify if a sand dollar is alive or not is super simple.
First, hold the sand dollar in your hands and look closely at the spines.
If the spines are moving, you are holding a living sand dollar.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach Destin Florida Shelling

How to Find Sand Dollars on the Beach

Shelling in Destin Florida for sand dollars can be done in two ways.
The first requires a bit of swimming while the second method does not require swimming.
However, some folks don’t feel comfortable venturing too far out in the ocean.

Beach Shore

If you don’t like to swim in the ocean, you are limited to beachcombing near the shore.
This isn’t a bad thing because the beach shore is the best place to find sand dollars you can keep.
When sand dollars die, they often get washed ashore for anyone to find.

The trick to finding sand dollars on the beach shore is timing.

Best Time to Find Sand Dollars in Florida

The best time to find sand dollars at the beach shore is early in the morning for two simple reasons.

  1. Low tide occurs early in the morning, which exposes part of the shore making it easy to spot sand dollars.
  2. Since sand dollars are visible on the shore, they get scooped up very quickly.

Second Sandbar

The beaches along the emerald coast of Florida have 2 sandbars – referred to as the 1st Sandbar and 2nd Sandbar.
A great way to find live sand dollars is to swim out to the second sandbar with a paddleboard or raft.
The second sandbar is located roughly 500 feet from the shore.
Additionally, the light blue color of the water makes it easy to spot.

second sandbar destin florida beach

Flotation Device

I highly encourage you to bring a flotation device with you especially if you are unfamiliar with swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.
My family and I use a raft (refer to picture below) to help get us to the second sandbar.

raft on second sandbar in destin florida

Find Hidden Sand Dollars

Once you reach the second sandbar, use a pair of goggles and a snorkel to look for sand dollars.
Most of the time, sand dollars rest just below the sand.
At times, sand dollars hide well such as in the picture below.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

To find sand dollars below the sand, use your hands or feet to stir up the sand on the bottom to reveal the sand dollars.

find sand dollars below the sand

Often times, sand dollars stick out of the sand which makes them easy to spot.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

The soft sand in Destin, Florida makes it easy to pick up sand dollars without damaging them.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

Keep in mind, live sand dollars secrete a yellow substance called echinochrome.
This harmless substance stains your hand for a short while, but comes off within an hour or so.

How to Find Sand Dollars at the Beach

Most of the sand dollars at the second sandbar are alive.
Even though I can’t keep them, I enjoy snorkeling, finding different types of shells, and just playing in the water.
Every so often, I’ll spot a starfish, dolphin, stingray, manatee, or the occasional shark.

starfish at destin florida beach

Also, I like to bring sand dollars to the surface and drop the them to watch them sink to the bottom.
As it glides down, tons of fish swarm to the sand dollar for an easy meal.
However, the fish quickly swim away once they realize the sand dollar isn’t food.

finding sand dollars in destin florida beaches

Clean Sand Dollars

So, you gathered sand dollars and noticed they don’t look or smell very good.
By now, you probably figured out sand dollars must be cleaned.

How to Clean Sand Dollars?

In order to clean sand dollars, I use a small bucket with a 1:1 ratio of bleach and water.
Allow them to soak in the solution overnight.
Rinse them off with fresh water in the morning and allow them to dry.
They should look like the picture below.

how to clean sand dollars

Final Thoughts

In summary, I hope this information in this article helps you enjoy your time at the beach.

More specifically, I hope you learned more about Destin Florida shelling and how to find sand dollars on the beach.
Thanks for stopping by!

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Melissa Estapa

Wednesday 14th of July 2021

One of my favorite beach memories is when we swam out to the 2nd sandbar with our snorkels. I had no idea the amazing experience that was going to be. We were approaching the 2nd sand bar and I was diving down to check everything out. My flippers stirred up the bottom and there were hundreds of sand dollars everywhere all around me. It was so amazing to see. That was also my first time to ever see a live sand dollar. Tons of baby ones too. They were so cute! Unfortunately the water has been too rough since then everytime we are there to go out that far safely. I want to do it again one day!


Thursday 15th of July 2021

Hi Melissa, thanks so much for sharing your memories snorkeling in Destin. Hopefully, the water is calmer next time you visit. :)

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