Sand dollars have always been a treasure among shells. Bulbous clamshells and swirling snails can be a dime a dozen, but not the smooth, understated sand dollar. Luckily, Hilton Head Island usually has a trove of sand dollars on its beaches.
Unlike most animals whose shells you find on the beach, the sand dollar is not a mollusk. Instead, it's most closely related to sea urchins and starfish. The creature doesn't live in its shell. Instead, it is the shell.
Once you learn to recognize the telltale signs of sand dollars on the beach, you'll start to discover them all over Hilton Head Island. But just know, if you look for a picture-perfect, bright white, sun-bleached sand dollar lying perfectly on the dry sand, you probably won't find any. Instead, keep your eyes open for a gray disc that blends in well with the wet sand at low tide. You can also look for a subtle two- or three-inch lump in the otherwise smooth sand where the waves wash in and out, and you might find one buried an inch or so under the sand.
When you find a sand dollar, immediately check to see if it's alive. You can tell by turning it over and looking at its cilia, or hundreds of tiny legs. Lightly brush them and look carefully to see if any are moving, even slightly. If there is any movement at all, gently place the sand dollar back in shallow water. There are plenty that have already died that you can find.
Live sand dollars will have a greenish or reddish brown color with a velvety coating. Dead sand dollars will be gray. If you're unsure, err on the side of caution, and put the sand dollar back in the water. It's illegal to remove a live sand dollar from the beach.
So now that you've found a sand dollar shell, how do you get your treasure to look like those pure white sand dollars you see in catalogues and home decor magazines? Well, you have two choices: let it bleach in the hot sun on the sand for a few months, or take matters into your own hands.
To speed up Mother Nature's process, place your sand dollar in a bowl of clear water and let it soak. The water will turn brown and murky. Change the water every few hours until it remains clear after a few hours of soaking.
Once the water is clear, add one part bleach to three parts water. Let your sand dollar soak in this bleach water for 15 minutes. Don't let it stay in there any longer, because the bleach can cause the sand dollar to become weak and even crumble.
You can leave the sand dollar outside for a few more days and let the sun really bleach it out.
Now you'll have a gorgeous souvenir from one of the prettiest beaches in the world.