Collecting Sand Dollars on Hilton Head Island 

One of the oldest pastimes when visiting the beach is collecting seashells. Since Hilton Head Island is a barrier island it does not get an abundance of varied shells. However, it does get some of the most popular collecting shells. One of the most sought after is the Hilton Head sand dollar, we call it mermaid money. 

With its more than 12 miles of beaches, Hilton Head Island is a multi millionaire when counting in sand dollars. The Flat Round sand dollar is the most commonly found on Hilton Head.  The sand dollarsí natural habitat is just beyond the mean low tide either on top or just below the sandís surface. They are easily found when it is low tide, often times laying on the sand's surface.

When a sand dollar dies, its skeleton (called a test) will often wash onto shore. At times these tests appear with out the velvety coating and have been naturally bleached,. This is what you want to collect. 

 Sand dollars do not have legs or fins leading many young minds to ask how they can move. They are able to move around because of the many spines covering their bodies.

Next time you gather one; take a close look at the body. If there appears to be fine hairs (called cilia) covering the body, and these hairs seem to move then you have a live sand dollar. Please do not collect this one, but rather let it thrive.

 If it is low tide or the tide is going out, you can help this beautiful creature by placing it on the oceans sandy bottom.  When doing this please be careful to place it bottom side down. On Hilton Head Island it is against the law to gather live sand dollars. 

The best time to hunt for sand dollars is when the tide is going out, especially after a storm. When there has been a storm, the excess wave action will cleanse the sand of many tests. If you gather dead sand dollars that still have the velvety coating, there are numerous ways to clean. Below is one we have found to work well. 

Cleaning Sand Dollars

  1. Once collected soak dead sand dollars in fresh water. I use a five gallon plastic bucket. The water will turn murky. Flush with fresh water. If the water again turns, continue until water is clear.
  2. Soak in a bleach and water solution. Try a 30% solution. Remember this is bleach; so try not to spill on your clothing. Let sit for 15 minutes. Do not let sit in the bleach solution too long as they may become brittle and crack When working with a bleach solution it is suggested you wear eye protectors and surgical or plastic gloves.
  3. Remove from the bleach solution and if possible sun dry. If not able to naturally dry, you can pat them with a paper towel and allow to air dry.
  4. If the sand dollars are not as white as you would like then repeat step 2- remember, each bleach soaking will weaken the structure.
  5. After natural drying there are a number of methods to harden the shells. An easy one is to spray with a clear acrylic. If you like doing things the old way then you may want to shellac the sand dollars. Another method is to mix Elmerís white glue with equal portions of water. Cover the sand dollar with this mixture and let dry
  6. You know have a cleaned and preserved sand dollar. We do our Christmas decorating with numerous sand dollars, after all it seems fitting.

Although this method is great for cleaning sand dollars, it can also be used to clean almost any seashell.  When cleaning other shells ensure all animal tissue has been removed. The flaky covering of most shells is called the periostracum. If not cleaned properly after a few days you will notice a stench. The decaying organic material causes this stench. So, remember do not pack unclean seashells in your luggage. 

I hope you enjoy walking Hilton Head Islandís beaches looking for shells and sand dollars. Hereís a little story to tell when hunting. 

Legend of the Sand Dollar

There's a pretty little legend
That I would like to tell
Of the birth and death of Jesus
Found in this lowly shell

If you examine closely,
You'll see that you find here
Four nail holes and a fifth one
Made by a Roman's Spear.

On one side the Easter Lily,
Its center is the star
That appeared unto the shepherds
And led them from afar.

The Christmas poinsettia
Etched on the other side
Reminds us of His birthday
Our Happy Christmastide.

Now break the centre open
And here you will release
The five white doves awaiting
To spread Good Will and Peace.

This simple little symbol,
Christ left for you and me
To help us spread his Gospel
Through all eternity.


Photo credits to GA Music Maker


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