There’s a disappearing island off North Carolina’s coast only accessible by boat where you can find buried treasure.
Sand Dollar Island, which is really just a large sand bar most accessible at low tide, is home to a seemingly more concentrated population of sand dollars than almost anywhere else on the Carolina coast, visitors say.
Sand dollars are in the same family as starfish and sea urchins known as echinoderms, according to Vicky McMillan, a retired Colgate University biologist who lives on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Live sand dollars look quite different from the white, sun-bleached discs of calcium carbonate skeleton they become after they die.
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A live sand dollar is darker in color — usually reddish, brown or purple— and its skeleton or “test” is “covered by a thin, velvety skin and numerous short spines,” according to McMillan.
Mary Castellow Coble said she and her husband have found the occasional sand dollar from Atlantic Beach to Emerald Isle — “but it is rather rare.”
Sand Dollar Island and surrounding sand bars are the only places Chris Mojica, of Raleigh, and his family have searched for and managed to find the little shell-like skeletons.
“My family visits the island typically once a weekend, sometimes twice,” he told The News & Observer.
If you’re hunting for sand dollars skeletons to bring home, you have to have a good eye to find them, Coble said.
Coble and her husband Lewis, of Greenville, visited Sand Dollar Island for the first time this year and the sandbar met their expectations and then some.
The Cobles normally spend their beach vacations at nearby Shackleford Banks, but “wanted to try something different,” Mary Coble said in an interview with The News & Observer on Facebook. “We loved Sand Dollar Island.”
“We found more than a dozen sand dollars. You have to have a good eye, but they are there!”
Mojica and his friends and family go to the island to hunt sand dollars and enjoy calmer surf, he said.
“I go every weekend from Oriental and love it,” Mojica’s friend, Steve Thompson, told The N&O.
But Sand Dollar Island isn’t the only place to find many of the tiny creatures, Mojica said.
“We actually have had better luck further down on Shark Island, which is only there during low tide,” he said. “We found almost 30 there one time.”
The Cobles’ sand dollar collection is on display in their home.
“They make a beautiful addition to our decor,” she said.
“Sometimes we give them away as souvenirs for visitors,” Mojica said.
Most sand dollars are found right around low tide in saturated sand, where they burrow.
The small invertebrates use their tiny spines to “creep along the sand” or bury themselves on the ocean floor, McMillan wrote.
Gracing the top of a sand dollar is the iconic flower shape pattern, which is really made up of tiny “pores,” McMillan wrote for The Island Packet in 2016. On the opposite side are tiny tube-like feet that funnel organic material from surrounding water and sand to the Sand Dollar’s mouth in the center.
The Sand Dollar Island Facebook page where people can “check in” and tag themselves at the island has become increasingly popular this summer, with people posting photos of their day on the sandbar, including their sand dollar hauls.
Renee Wright’s book “Explorer’s Guides: North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Crystal Coast” mentions Sand Dollar Island: “Sand dollars are also abundant, especially on the small sand bar called Sand Dollar Island that lies between Carrot Island and Shackleford Banks.”
Only collect white dollars
Sand dollars can only survive a few moments outside of the water, so make sure to only collect and disturb the white, sun-bleached “shells” of dead dollars.
If a sand dollar is still dark in color and you can still see its spines, it’s probably still alive and should be left alone.
“It’s easy to tell living from dead, and we only take the dead ones,” Mojica told the N&O. “Dead ones are typically bleached white just like you see at the gift shops; sometimes a little discolored. The live ones are a distinctive dark brown color and very slimy. Both live and dead ones are very brittle.”
“You just have to make sure you don’t collect live ones,” Coble said.
The same goes for shells such as conch and starfish. If there’s something living in a shell or if it moves, leave it be.
In some areas, such as Hilton Head Island, killing sand dollars is illegal and comes with a hefty fine.
How to get there
To get to Sand Dollar Island, you’re going to need a boat.
“When the tide is low, it’s time to go collect sand dollars on a hidden sandbar island,” the Morehead City Ferry Service says on its website. Tickets aboard the catamaran to the island are $16 for adults and $9 for children.
“Now accessible at all tides, this sandbar offers the best hunting grounds for sand dollars,” Island Ferry Adventures says on its website. “The shallow tidal pools surrounding the sandbar offer a safe swimming environment and excellent snorkeling opportunities.
“You never know what kind of unique and interesting wildlife you will discover while wading in the gently lapping shallows of Sand Dollar.”
Tickets aboard Island Ferry Adventure are $15 for adults and $8 for children 11 and younger.
The ferry schedules vary with the tide.