A Guide to the Shells of Hawaii

Close-up of Colorful Shells
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Seashells are some of the most treasured gems of Hawaii, just walk into any jewelry store and you’ll see what I mean. From diamond-encrusted sunrise shells to gold-inlaid pearls to puka shell bangles, these sea creature husks have been washing up on Hawaiian shores for centuries. While many locals dive and beach comb to find shells for jewelry or personal collections, tourists will simply scout the sand for a treasure to take home.

Hawaii has a vast variety of shells that are found both in the sand and along underwater shell beds. I never condone taking shells away from the beach that still have critters living inside them, but bringing home a few empty shell treasures is a neat way to begin a collection of beautiful beach findings for your home.

In case you find yourself stooping low to scoop up a shell or two (just don’t take the shells home), and wonder what its name is, here is a quick list of some of Hawaii’s more popular shells to find.

These are not shells but in fact pieces of shells. They are ubiquitous to found on Hawaii’s beaches and are recognized by their puka, or hole, in the middle. Puka shells are typically worn-down pieces of a cone shell’s spire, which is the part of the shell that contains all the whorls (think of a whorl as the swirl or spiral growth of the shell). A naturally occurring hole forms in the center of these weathered shells, hence their name puka shell. Because of their hole, puka shells are ideal beads for necklaces, bracelets, and other jewelry.

In fact, pukas were regularly strung in Hawaii and were traditionally thought to assure a safe and peaceful sea voyage, especially for the sailors setting out on long journeys. Puka shell necklaces were worn by travelers of the sea, and still hold relevance as symbols for watermen and women in Hawaii.

Shiva (eye)
Just as common as puka shells, the shiva shells are white and polished and scattered throughout all of Hawaii’s beaches. They are common to collect because they are easy to find and simple in their natural beauty. Shiva shells are the operculum, or little lid, of the shell that protects the creature’s soft body. Like all shells, these ones are tumbled in the waves and sand and worn down to about the size of a dime and are polished to a shine by the sea.
A sunrise shell is possibly the most treasured shell of the Hawaiian seas. Originally worn only by Hawaiian royalty, the sunrise is a deep water scallop that boasts vibrant colors of yellows, oranges, and pinks, much like the colors of a sunrise. They are scarce and hard to find, which is why you’ll see a hefty price tag on them in stores. Although uncommon, it is not unheard of for sunrises to wash up on the north-facing shores of Oahu, Kauai, and Niihau.
Traditionally these shells were known as fertility symbols by Hawaiians, but today are collected simply as beautiful shells. They can vary in size between an inch to six, and also in color. Cowry names usually denote their patterns, and common ones found in Hawaii are the humpback cowry, tiger cowry, snakehead cowry, checkered cowry, honey cowry, and lynx cowry. If you remember the sugary cereal Smacks, then you will be able to visualize the shape of cowry shells.
Cone Shell
Cone shells get their name from their shape but come in all sorts of colors and patterns. These types of shells are shockingly detailed and bright, and for good reason. The creatures inside cone shells have a very poisonous sting, so don’t immediately pick one up if you see it. Wait to make sure it is empty before you touch it and don’t ever touch one if it’s underwater. The most common pattern of cone shells found in Hawaii is the black-and-white one, which has dark brown or black-and-white square designs.
Kahelelani (Niihau)
Another bead for royalty, kahelelani’s were collected from the sand and strung to create thick lei necklaces for Hawaiian ali‘i. More commonly known as Niihau shells for the island in which they typically wash up, you can also find these teeny shells on Kauai, Molokai, and Lanai. They are miniature in size, about a quarter of the size of your pinky nail, and vary between browns, pinks, and reds in color. They are tedious to find and even more tedious to string, which is why they are so valuable in jewelry shops around Hawaii.
The name opihi actually refers to the creature that lives inside this shell, but the shell’s name is actually a limpet. Opihi cling to rocks much like mussels do in California, and are gathered and eaten by local people in Hawaii. They are oval-shaped and look like flattened volcanoes since their center rises slightly and then craters. They can be anywhere from bright white in color to a deep black and usually blend into their surrounding. However, if you’re reef walking you will most likely spot them clinging to the rocks and protectively capping the creature beneath it.
True to their common name, the auger shell is long, skinny, and sharp, and somewhat resembles a screw or dagger. They have varied patterns and colors and live in the sand, but also are venomous like cone shells. Be careful if you spot one of these as there may still be a creature living inside. Beautiful and dainty, auger shells are a relative to the cone shell and should thus be collected only with caution.
Sea glass
While sea glass is not natural nor a shell, it is a ubiquitous component of Hawaii’s sand. Glass that has been weathered, worn down and smoothed over is common to find amongst the shells and sand grains and usually is green, brown or clear. The less common sea glass colors to find are blue and turquoise, and the really rare colors are purple and red. The glass comes from a plethora of different sources including beer and wine bottles, Japanese fishing floats, shipwrecks, and other marine debris. It is collected and made into jewelry or used for decoration in homes and is very common to find in Hawaii.