Saltwater Hermit Crabs Hiding in Sea Shells

Out of ignorance, I may have committed murder. My husband and I were kayaking in Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Outer Banks (OBX) is a chain of islands that forms a narrow strip of land several miles off the coast. In between the islands and the mainland are several sounds including Pamlico Sound. We had launched from Motts Creek in Pamlico Sound near the Coast Guard station, where there are official boat launch ramps, and from there we paddled south.

The Outer Banks has several nature preserves, which are areas where both the plants and wildlife are protected, and where beach houses and businesses are prohibited. For a nature loving kayaker, it’s a heavenly combination, because we paddled to our heart’s content just north of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.

We had already kayaked south of the Pea Island nature preserve from the launch area next to the Lego Bridge, as the locals call it, which is a snap-together bridge that spans a segment of road which washed away when Hurricane Irene devastated the Outer Banks in 2011.

Mother Nature must love me as much as I love her, because a shrimp literally jumped into my kayak near the Lego Bridge. I had no idea that shrimp even jumped like tiny flying fish, and I quickly threw him back in lest he perish like a fish out of water. That was a short kayaking day, and now we were ready for a full day on the water.

It was our last day in the OBX, and we were kayaking near the Oregon Inlet Bridge. In several areas the water was so shallow that you could reach down from your kayak and touch bottom with your hand, and this is where I found the coolest sea shells. They were protected from the ocean waves, and thus they were still in one piece.

I collected several sea shells as we glided along in our kayaks. We hadn’t booked a kayak tour, we’d hauled our own kayaks all the way from Atlanta, so it was just the two of us. The only other humans were off in the distance, standing in the shallow water, presumably fishing. This region wasn’t for noisy fun, surfing, motorboats, kiteboarding, or the like. It was a quiet place to commune with nature.

As we paddled through the inlets in between the marsh grasses, one of the seashells in my kayak started to move, traveling down toward the front of the kayak. I discovered that a saltwater hermit crab was living inside the sea shell. A second sea shell also had a hermit crab inside, but none of the other shells moved, or showed any signs of life.

All too soon our day of adventure came to an end and we pulled the kayaks up onto the beach. There I laid the hermit crabs down and took several photos, and then let them go back to the ocean where they belonged.

I go out of my way not to harm the creatures of nature, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant, because to me they are all God’s creatures and should be respected. I checked the rest of the sea shells, winding my finger up inside to make sure that they were empty, and we went back to the beach house.

It was our last full day before leaving, and we had a lot of packing to do. We don’t travel light, especially with two dogs and two kayaks in tow. We’d traveled on a budget so we had to bring a lot of items that come with the more expensive beach rentals. Our beach house did not provide towels, toilet tissue, a washer and dryer, dishwasher, or even internet. Knowing that it didn’t have a washer and dryer, we weren’t sure how clean the bedding would be, so we even brought our own sheets, pillows and blankets.

The minute we got home from kayaking, I sealed the sea shells in zip lock baggies to make sure they wouldn’t stink up all our stuff before I could properly clean them. Two days later when we were back in Atlanta unpacking, I unsealed the baggies to clean the shells and discovered that *every single sea shell* I’d picked up had a saltwater hermit crab living inside!

They’d hidden so well that they’d totally fooled me. If only they’d peeked out just for a second, or wiggled the shells, I’d have gently laid them back in the ocean — but no. They’d sucked themselves so deep inside their shells that even my littlest finger hadn’t found them. They hadn’t given off a single clue of their existence.

The saltwater hermit crabs ended up traveling far inland with us to Atlanta, Georgia. There was no way to take them back to the ocean and set them free. I was now responsible for several saltwater hermit crabs, who’d been out of their environment without food or water for two days. I was mortified. I don’t like to harm nature’s little creatures.

We couldn’t let them go in the nearby swamp as saltwater crabs can’t survive in fresh water, so now we had unexpected pets. The long forgotten aquarium in the basement got hauled out, cleaned up, and we went and bought sand, hermit crab food, and water treatment chemicals from the pet store. We created a terrarium-like habitat with a pool, rocks, and sand. We researched hermit crabs to find out if there was anything else they liked to eat besides store-bought pellets, and there were several fruits and vegetables on the list such as grapes, bananas, strawberries, and leafy green veggies.

We thought we were good to go and with the crisis averted, and the hermit crabs installed in their new home, we did a bit more research on hermit crabs. That’s when the bottom fell out again. We discovered that saltwater hermit crabs had totally different needs from land hermit crabs. We’d been in such a panicked state knowing that they’d been stressed for two days that we’d rushed to provide for them before they perished from neglect. In the big rush, we had researched “hermit crabs” and gotten the wrong info, and our sandy aquarium habitat would not accommodate marine crabs from the ocean. They were still in dire straits in spite of our efforts and trip to the pet store.

We’d plucked these innocent creatures from their saltwater habitat, came very close to killing them, but tried to do right by them as soon as we discovered our mistake. My stress level went up several notches after learning that they were active, social, and intelligent, and that they could live up to thirty two years. That made my blunders all the worse.

Saltwater hermit crabs absolutely must be able to fully submerge in specially treated saltwater, using marine salt and not table salt, and with NO trace of chlorine from your tap water. Chlorine is deadly to marine hermit crabs, as are the ingredients in table salt. The saltwater should have a bubbler to keep it oxygenated, just like with a fish tank, and the salt water needs to be regulated for pH and temperature.

Marine crabs live underwater, and rarely come out of the water, so the terrarium-type tank we’d set up did not even come close to meeting their needs. This additional tidbit of info exposed yet another big blunder — that even keeping them in the kayak out of water had caused them harm. From the moment I’d picked them up out of the water, I was committing a great sin against a living creature.

Ocean hermit crabs cannot live out of the water for very long, as they breathe air underwater through gills just like a fish. Even the pool of water we’d given them wasn’t aerated with a bubbler, so it couldn’t provide them with oxygen. Out of the water, they will die by slow suffocation, though it may take several days before their last gasp. Their aquarium should also have living rock, according to one article I read, which you can only get from a store that specializes in saltwater aquariums.

To complicate it even further, there are several species of marine hermit crabs, and they all have different needs. Some saltwater hermit crabs change their shells every single day, while others live in the same shell until they no longer fit inside, so you need to be prepared, and you can’t just throw in any old shell. The sea shells that you provide for them need to be cleaned in a specific manner or you risk exposing them to deadly toxins.

Some saltwater hermit crabs are voracious carnivores, and will eat virtually any other living creature which is smaller than they are. That includes fish, if you’re attempting to put them in an existing, populated fish tank, as well as smaller crabs. Others are peaceful grazers looking for vegetation and corals. Since we had no idea which species we’d brought home, and we had several crabs both big and small, we didn’t even know if they could be kept in the same tank.

We weren’t prepared to create a full water aquarium, as our existing aquarium had been taken out of use for leaking. It was great as a sandy terrarium with a pool, but would not have held up as an underwater habitat. Fearing that every moment we wasted brought the crabs closer to death, we did the only responsible thing. We searched for the most reputable saltwater fish dealer we could find, who could provide a proper home for them. Letting them go in the nearby marsh would kill them, and probably be illegal or harm the wildlife there.

I’d plucked these happy, innocent crabs from their homes, put them in miserable conditions for two days, and then donated them to a saltwater aquarium dealer with no idea of what their fate would be. There’s no sea shell in the universe worth what I put these poor hermit crabs through, and I cried all the way to the fish store knowing I’d caused grief to another creature. At least we’d chosen a reputable dealer who had giant tanks of living rock where they let the saltwater hermit crabs settle for awhile.

If you’re determined to pick up sea shells on the beach, at least keep an eye on them for 24 hours to see if they show signs of life, so that you aren’t committing murder. If you put them down in an undisturbed location away from humans, and they magically move when nobody’s looking, that tells you that the sea shells are crab houses, and you should let them go in a similar environment to where you found them.

If you discover too late that you brought saltwater hermit crabs home with you, the most humane thing you can do is to find an aquarium shop that specializes in saltwater fish, call them up and explain what happened, and see if they’ll adopt your crabs. Many won’t, because it’s illegal in many regions to remove these crabs from their environment and bring them home. All you can do is hope to find one that takes pity on a creature who will otherwise die.

If they all turn you down, start calling schools and universities with biology departments, and talk to those departments. Some have saltwater tanks that may accommodate your orphaned crabs. Whatever you do, you need to do it IMMEDIATELY, unless you’re willing to commit murder. Remember, every single minute that your marine crabs are out of the right type of aerated and specially prepared saltwater, they are suffocating a long, slow, agonizing death. These long-lived, intelligent creatures need to get back into the sea water — ASAP!

If you’re a nature lover like I am, you might enjoy my photoblog books. The paperback versions make great coffee table books, and you can also get an eBook version. They come with full color photos, and stories about each entity. All three volumes highlight creatures that live in my own back yard, and some of the creatures are truly bizarre. It just goes to show that you don’t need to travel to some exotic place to see really cool insects, animals, and plants. They might be living right outside your back door — there’s no place like home!

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    4 Responses to Saltwater Hermit Crabs Hiding in Sea Shells

    1. Ashley Gleason says:


      I was wondering if you could let me know the name of the saltwater fish dealer that you found to adopt your hermit crabs. I just made the exact same mistake and accidentally brought home a hermit crab from a beach in South Carolina, completely unaware that it was in the shell until I got home. I live in Atlanta as well, so any information that you could give me on the fish dealer you found would be very much appreciated! Thank you!


      • Allie says:

        Oh gosh, I don’t remember. I think it was in Marietta. I remember driving a long way. We just started calling them all and explaining our situation until one said yes. I don’t think they are supposed to, some legal thing maybe? All I know is that we were eternally grateful to have found him a home where he at least had a chance.

    2. Debra Mitchell says:

      You learned a valuable lesson and did the best you could to seve these little creatures. Most importantly, you shared your experience to prevent others from making the same mistake. I am like you in that I believe every one of Gods creations deserve a place on earth. Try not to feel bad, you didn’t know.

      • Cheryl says:

        I came across your article because I had just brought two hermit crabs to the beach to set them free. My co teacher got them for her class from a pet store. As I read your article I felt so badly for you. I would feel exactly as you did 🙁 . Even as I was letting the crabs go I was feeling like I wanted them to stay together. One just went running off to explore and one was just sticking inide her shell. Once I accepted they may not stay together I was happy they were free. For me, I would rather live one day as a free being than fifty years in a cage. Thank you for writing this article and for having such a loving heart!

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