Some of the coolest seashells in my collection come from New Zealand beaches. Collecting treasures on the beach is one of those marvelous activities that transports you straight to your childhood but manages to delight participants of all ages.

Shells make the best travel souvenirs because they are not only beautiful but involve a beach-side scavenger hunt. Collecting shells in New Zealand is a fun and free way to spend an afternoon exploring the country’s 15,000 km of coastline. I spent many hours beachcombing during my year in New Zealand, and here I’ll talk about my three favorite shell beaches on all three of New Zealand’s Islands.

Is It Legal to Take Shells From the Beach in New Zealand?

Yes! The DOC says so right here! You can collect shells in New Zealand, and it’s legal to take them out of the country.

How to Collect Shells Responsibly?

Is it ethical to collect shells? Those of us who love seashells often do so because we love beauty and nature, so even if it’s hard, we have to ask ourselves if our desire to remove something from nature is ethical.

Buying seashells from souvenir shops can cause overharvesting of certain species. Harvesting more shells than the ecosystem can support is unsustainable. I’d thus be careful about buying shells as souvenirs. (Although I did buy a couple of paua shells in New Zealand, since there are strict regulations for paua harvesting in New Zealand).

But what about collecting shells yourself? I think that this guide to ethical shell collecting is really good. Some good rules to follow include:

  1. If it’s alive, leave it behind. Shells should be more like thrift shopping, and less like trophy hunting.
  2. Hermit crabs use spiral shells for their homes. I’m guilty of collecting some of these, but I try not to take too many.
  3. Don’t take too many. This is super important. Shells are part of the ecosystem and are important for a variety of animals. I like to collect all the shells that catch my eye, and then before I leave lay them all out and pick my absolute favorites. I Kon-Mari my treasures and leave most behind.

Maori Beach, Stewart Island

My favorite beach for collecting shells was Maori Beach on Stewart Island. We found hands down the coolest shells, including two gorgeous paua shells!

Maori beach is located on New Zealand’s tiny third island: Rakiura, or Stewart Island. We visited it while doing the Rakiura track: a 32 km loop that is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It’s also possible to visit as a day trip from Oban (Stewart Island’s only town).

Maori beach is nestled inside Wooding Bay, protected from the rough waters of the Foveaux Strait. The Strait separates Rakiura from the South Island, but is part of the continental shelf area of New Zealand: perhaps these conditions are what makes this a phenomenal shell beach.

We found beautiful shells on the sand of the beach, but some of our best finds were to the side in the rocks. Definitely explore the rocks to the edge of the beach: the shells that get washed up in storms tend to stay there. Although many shells are broken, there’s treasures to be found for the patient and the resilient.

My favorite shells from Maori beach are the volutes: spiral shells with modern, abstract markings. On Maori beach, or at least when I was there, the volutes tended to be shades of salmon pink to beige, with deep brown markings.

We were especially hoping to find some paua shells, and we weren’t disappointed! Paua are New Zealand abalone, and you can find their iridescent blue/turquoise/purple markings on everything from traditional Maori woodcarvings, jewelry, home decor, and even ashtrays.

At first, paua are hard to spot, and we kept inspecting random shells in case they could actually be a paua. When you find one, however, there’s no mistaking it. A tip is to look for a row of circular holes lining the edge of the shell. That way you can spot paua even if they’re upside down.

Victory Beach, Otago Peninsula

Victory Beach holds a really special place in my heart. It’s about seven kilometers from where I spent my winter in New Zealand, so most weeks I would go here to explore and look for cool shells. The Otago Peninsula is a really special place full of New Zealand wildlife, and some of my favorite beaches in New Zealand are located here. For the best things to do on the Otago Peninsula, (including Victory Beach), check out my post here.

Victory Beach is the longest stretch of beach on the Otago Peninsula, so there’s plenty of length to stroll and explore. Just be sure to look up every minute or so, lest you stumble on a sleeping seal or sea lion. The oyster catchers will let you know (loudly) if you get too close to their nests. This beach is full of wildlife, which makes the shell finding experience a wonderful adventure.

The shells that I found here were not necessarily full of drama. They were smaller, and had more muted colors. Searching for small treasures, however, is not smaller is in entertainment. My favorite shells to collect here were various bivalves with perfectly round boreholes.

Victory beach had the greatest number of shells with boreholes in them out of any other place in my beachcombing experience. These drill holes, most likely created by marine gastropods (sea snails and the like), are the mark of predator on prey. Also, they make great pre-made holes in the shells for jewelry and other crafts. I made a seashell garland for our van, stringing up the shells with some fishing wire.

Ninety Mile Beach, Northland

Ninety Mile Beach is actually a 55 mile beach (go figure) that stretches along the west coast of Northland, on the Tasman Sea. This beach is excellent for exploring, not only because there’s more miles than you could ever explore, but also because it’s permissible to drive down the beach, (good to have a vehicle that does well off road, we didn’t risk it).

On Ninety Mile beach, I found the coolest scallop shells! I love the almost “comic book shell” look of scallop shells. My favorites from Ninety Mile Beach were completely, perfectly flat! The colors ranged from black to marroon to orange to pink. They were like autumn leaves scattered across the sand.

I’m really looking forward to incorporating these scallop shells in my fall decor. Since they are absolutely flat, I’m hoping to use them as stands for tea light candles for a fall-colored, coastal, travel decor style.

Final Thoughts

Shell collecting is all about the search, and New Zealand has thousands of kilometers of coastline to explore. It’s a great place for a shell lover, wether you take some home with you or not. As long as you collect responsibly and don’t take too many, shells make the perfect souvenirs and gifts. I’m super excited to unpack and rediscover all my seashells, and cannot wait to have a house or apartment to decorate with my shells, souvenirs, and photos from New Zealand.

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