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Cleaning and Preserving Sand Dollars, Starfish, Seashells, and Other Sea Life Specimens

From sand dollars to starfish, collecting sea life specimens can be an interesting hobby, but cleaning, drying, and preserving these pieces can be challenging. These objects, which tend to give character to any beach motif setting, can either be found through beachcombing or purchased. Many prefer preparing their collection themselves to serve as souvenirs. But, before beginning any beachcombing session, make sure you are familiar with the rules of the beach. Some objects can not be collected because they are important to the ecosystem. You will also need to know the schedule for when the beach is open and when the tide will be low. Sometimes, after a storm is the best opportunity to look because storms tend to stir up debris in the sea. Carry with you a long padded box like a shirt box lined with paper towels or a plastic storage container without the lid.

After returning home, you will have to know proper methods for preparation while taking special care not to break brittle objects. As a rule of thumb, do not wash fish specimens. Sand dollars, dried starfish, and sea urchin skeletons which have not yet been preserved are extremely brittle, so take special care not to break them. Each type of sea life has its own method for preparation:

Shells– These treasures are found typically on saltwater beaches, though an occasional freshwater mollusk shell or mussel is gatherable. Be sure to only collect seashells where the animals have abandoned the shell or died


1.      Remove dead tissue. If there is an odor to the seashell, it might have dead body tissue in it. Aside from leaving the seashell outside or burying them and letting the bugs clean your shells for you, the only cure for this is removal. Prepare a drying solution of three parts salt, one part baking soda and place the offending shell in the dry bath.

Coat the shell inside and out, being careful to fill the sea shell completely. Place shells and salt treatment in a gallon-sized zipper bag and freeze. Be careful not to freeze brittle seashells. Brittle shells must be placed inside a container filled with silica gel and the dead tissue picked out after drying when it has mummified.

An alternative to the process of cleaning dead tissue is to boil the seashells. This might result in an odor in your home, especially if the shell was collected some time after the animal died.

2.     Sort out the iridescent and fragile. After your sea shells no longer smell, divide the iridescent shells, bihalved shells, and fragile seashells from the sturdy ones for cleaning in different solutions.

3.     Prepare sturdy sanitizer solution and soak. In a large container, mix 4 cups of water with 4 cups of bleach. Add one tablespoon of dishwashing liquid. Add sturdy seashells. Allow these shells to soak, periodically scrubbing the ones covered in seaweed, algae, or barnacles and debris with a toothbrush. After the seashell is clean, remove from the solution, rinse very well, and pat dry with a paper towel. Allow to finish air drying the rest of the way.

4.     Cleanse Iridescent, fragile, or bihalved Shells.Iridescent or fragile seashells must be washed in mild dish detergent, dried gently with paper towel, and then allowed to finish drying in the sun. Be very careful not to damage the hinge of a bihalved shell.

PRESERVING SHELLSPreserving of seashells is simple. If they have been allowed to properly dry, no other effort is needed. Some collectors like to use baby oil on a well-dried to bring out seashell luster. This is optional.

Shark Teeth– These remains are usually very black and shiny but can be brown or white. Display can be done in a frame along with other teeth or in a small bowl. Cleaning, drying, and preserving these is the same as fragile sea shells.

Sea Fans– These are beautiful tangles related to the coral in vibrant shades.

CLEANING AND DRYING SEA FANS Rinse the sea fan in clear, fresh water to remove the salt. Allow to air dry in the sun.

PRESERVING SEA FANSSpray well-dried fan with clear matte enamel paint.

Sand Dollars– Sand dollars are white in color, and when whole have a rounded coin like appearance. Varying in size from an inch to several inches, the sand dollar is actually the skeleton of a type of sea urchin. Sand dollars can be found typically on the southern beaches of Florida in shallow water where sand is present. They can either be flat, like the sand dollars closely connected to the story of Jesus, or bulging on the top, commonly called a sea biscuit or sea cookie for its shape. Never take fuzzy-looking Sand Dollars, because they are still alive.

CLEANING AND DRYING SAND DOLLARSThere are two methods of cleaning sand dollars. Both methods involve being extremely careful with the sand dollars, as these are quite brittle and fragile objects.

  • Bleach Method:Soak sand dollars in clear water. When the water becomes cloudy or brown, change the water and continue soaking the sand dollars until water remains clear. Remove the sand dollars from water and pat dry. Then dry the sand dollars completely by laying them on a bed of silica gel without disturbing them inside an airtight container for eight days or leaving the sand dollars out in the sun. Prepare a solution of 50% bleach, 50% water. Place the sand dollars in this solution for twenty minutes, but no longer or they will start to disintegrate. Remove them from the solution and allow them to dry in the sun. The longer the sand dollars are in the sun, the whiter they become, and likewise the more brittle they become.


  • Regular Method:Place a tablespoon of Woolite in a gallon of warm water. Gently wash the sand dollars in the solution. Pat the sand dollars dry and allow them to finish drying completely in the sun.

PRESERVING SAND DOLLARSPaint dried sand dollars with Elmer’s glue that has been watered down (1/1) for a dull natural finish or with hard as nails polish for a shiny finish. Sand dollars can also be painted with watercolors if allowed if completely dried and preserved with glue afterward.

Seahorses NEVER HARVEST LIVE SEAHORSES! This object of sea life was once alive and resembles a small curled horse. Seahorses vary in size and are a shade of brown. They can be collected off the gulf coast and Florida’s Atlantic coast.

CLEANING AND DRYING SEAHORSESDo not attempt to clean seahorses. This will only add to the problems with decay and smell. Soak dead seahorses for 48 hours in rubbing alcohol and allow it to dry in the sun or in silica gel. Do not wait after collecting this or other fish to preserve and treat it. It will stink and you will think you have never smelled anything so vile.

PRESERVING SEAHORSESStore a seahorse specimen in a dry place. If dried completely, it should not stink any more.

Starfish– Starfish vary in color from pale tan to a deep ruddy brown. There are over 1500 species of starfish and they range in size from 1cm to bit under 70cm. Starfish can be found on various seacoasts, both living and demised. Living starfish must be returned to the sea and only demised starfish be kept for decoration.

CLEANING AND DRYING STARFISHStarfish should only be cleaned in a mild detergent solution that is mostly water and very little detergent and dried in the sun. A preferred method is to soak the starfish immediately in rubbing alcohol for 48 hours and forego cleaning it. Then, allow the starfish to dry in the sun. Be sure to weigh down every arm of the starfish, or they will curl up and not be as pretty. Another way to preserve the starfish is soaking it in formalin, which is 1 part formaldehyde and 5 parts water, and then drying it properly. The starfish will have a very strong chemical odor at first that will dissipate after it has dried completely.

PRESERVING STARFISHKeep starfish in a dry place. The best preservation method is to completely dry starfish before display.

Sea Urchin– Sea urchin skeleton shells and spines are beautiful objects to admire, and can vary in color from pinks to greens. Sea urchin spines are smooth, elongated, and have a hardness similar to shells. They are a rich chocolate color often with red tips and bone-colored ends.

CLEANING AND DRYING SEA URCHINSFor sea urchin spines, follow the instructions for fragile seashells. The body is a bit tricky. Silica gel is great for mummifying the sea urchin skeleton so it can be picked later, but there are several other suggested ways to clean urchins. One such way is to soak for 48 hours in alcohol, lay the sea urchin in the sun for drying, pick out the insides and pick off the spines, flip over in the sun, repeat.

PRESERVING SEA URCHINSSea urchin skeletons are fragile. It is suggested a collector follow the instructions for preserving a Sand Dollar.

Barnacle– Barnacles are actually interesting in that they grow on almost anything in the sea. They have a volcano-like appearance and are usually white. They can be found singly or attached to other things like shells. Cleaning, drying, and preserving barnacles should be done exactly the same as one would do a fragile shell specimen.

Coral– Coral is a beautiful object to behold. However, reef systems depend on coral to sustain life. Before gathering coral pieces, make sure all laws are being observed. If you simply must decorate with coral, there are many varieties of artificial coral that can be purchased.

CLEANING AND DRYING CORALCleaning coral is a multi-step process. First, the animals using the coral as a home must be removed. That can be done by soaking the coral in fresh water, as the animals are saltwater animals and can not survive three days in fresh water. Then, the coral must be soaked in 2 parts bleach, one part water for 48 hours.

PRESERVING CORALCoral should be soaked in alcohol and let dry, but most coral is fine after cleaning and will last even without this treatment. However, rarer versions of coral are best if sprayed with a clear acrylic lacquer.

Sea Bean– Actually a type of driftwood, sea beans are objects collected for luck from Florida shorelines. They are a rich brown sea-polished seed that has traveled from Europe and reached the American shoreline. They require no cleaning nor special preservation after drying.

Sand– It is suggested that collectors leave beach sand for the beach and buy play sand, which has already been cleaned and dried. There is no method for preserving sand.

Driftwood– Tide twisted wood is quite beautiful and serves as an interesting foundation for any sea life collection. Cleaning should be done with gentle detergent water, and the wood should be completely dried. No other preservation is necessary, but many varnish their driftwood or wax it for a shined affect.

Horseshoe Crabs– Follow the instructions for urchins. The bodies can be preserved if formalin is injected into the limbs, but it is recommended to preserve only the outer shell. Preserving the inside of the crab is very difficult.

Sea Glass– These are souvenirs of polished glass which the sand and sea have tumbled smooth. Clean in clear water and display as-is for a lovely eclectic look.

Sponges– A sponge is a lovely item for any home to retain a natural look. Sponges are the skeletal remains of a sea animal.

CLEANING AND DRYING SPONGESDo not squeeze a sponge with your bare hands, or you can get cut. Under clear, running water and using gloves rinse out the sponge and squeeze out excess water. For the smell, place the sponge in a container of alcohol with a lid. Do not open this container for 48 hours. Allow the sponge to dry completely in the sun.

PRESERVING SPONGESThe key to preserving a sponge is drying and keeping the sponge in a dry environment. Commercial sponges are better for home use.

Fish- Fish make an exciting display, but like seahorses, they can smell if not properly mummified.

CLEANING AND DRYING FISHDo not clean these sea life specimens. Instead, immerse in a jar of alcohol with a lid. Soak for 48 hours and pat dry. Mummify sea fish in silica gel by creating a bed of silica inside a sealable container, resting the fish in it, and pouring the silica gel around and over it. Seal the container and leave it alone for two weeks.

PRESERVING FISHShellac is recommended but unnecessary to help in preserving mummified fish specimens if the fish are allowed to dry completely.

Collecting, cleaning, drying, and preserving sea life specimens is an interesting hobby with a decorative result that lasts a lifetime. Just remember to never collect a living creature, observe all safety practices and rules of the beach, and make sure you clean and dry those objects right away to avoid decay.

Cleaning sea life specimens is necessary to keep them from odor, but as with most types of tissue, the essential part of cleaning, drying, and preservation is making sure the specimen is properly dried. With practice, anyone can preserve beautiful specimens by just following a few easy guidelines!