Why Can You Hear the Ocean in a Seashell?

Every person who has ever had a seashell knows this sea-like sound since childhood. Indeed, you just need to put this gift of the sea to your ear to hear the rustle of waves lapping on the shore. But there is no ocean inside the shell actually, even a tiny bit of it. What is the origin of this sound then? We will try to answer this question based on scientifically proven facts and basic physics.

Why Can You Hear the Ocean in a Seashell?

Short facts and answers

Is This the Sound of the Ocean in the Shell?

No, it's not — it's just a reflection of all the noise around us we usually take no notice of.

Does The Shell Generate These Sounds?

No, it only reflects all the surrounding sounds, even the most insignificant ones.

Is It Safe to Take a Couple of Shells from the Beach?

Actually, if millions of tourists take a couple of shells away, this may lead to an environmental disaster.

Is This the Blood We Hear in the Shell?

Alas, the take about the sea origin of this sound does not hold water. So we have to look for a more rational basis to explain this. For example, some people believe that this noise is an echo of blood rushing through human veins.

It's far from the case, though. Okay, it can be the truth if you put the shell tightly to your ear. But how would you explain that this sound can be measured with a special device when it is on a table several meters away? The sound of blood just could not be reflected at such a distance.

What Is This Sound Then?

It turns out that it is made up of all the sounds around you. Numerous noises we got used to over the years have localized in the shell. A passing car, a wheezing faucet, buzzing from a refrigerator, and TV noise—all these sounds mix up into a blurring and completely unrecognizable cacophony. This is what we take for the ocean sound. It’s just an amplified echo of all those noises modern people can't imagine their life without.

You can do a quick experiment: compare the sound of the shell inside and outside your house. I bet the sound will be completely different. After all, different surroundings produce various noises that differ in intensity. But if you come into an anechoic chamber and try to listen to the shell, you will hear nothing — it will stubbornly remain silent.

So Why Do Shells Sound Like the Ocean?

The answer is simple. The seashell is a natural resonator. Sound waves traveling everywhere make their way into the shell. Bouncing off the smooth shell walls back and forth, they get amplified. Actually, it even doesn't necessarily have to be a shell. You can take an ordinary glass or rather a vase. Hold it to your ear, and you will hear the very same sound of the sea. It can even work with your hands folded and put to the ear.

It's just an echo. You can hear it in an empty room, a cave with stone walls, or just in a stairwell. Being reflected from the walls and then distorted, each step and word is deafening.

Besides, some experts say that the "ocean" sound is not the same in all shells, given the difference in their surfaces, which can be smooth or have walls, such as shells with multiple chambers. The last one provides the loudest echo. The thing is that the shell walls reflect the sound, making it stronger and more distorted. And the chambered shells feature many of these walls. So the sound waves spring back from one wall to the next over and over again. As a result, the sound in the chambered shell differs greatly from that in a smooth one.

The sound inside the seashell (joke) Didn't you think the shell worked like that :)

Can I Take Seashells from the Beach?

Everyone who has ever relaxed on the beach, especially somewhere on the exotic coasts of Thailand or Tahiti, thinks of bringing home some nature souvenirs. And what could be better than a seashell? Anyway, taking a couple of shells as a keepsake is not a big deal, is it?

Well, that’s right. But what if many thousands of other tourists, who also were here on holiday, come up with the same idea? It will lead to the seashore losing millions of shells. And this is fraught with a real environmental disaster. It's hard to believe, but there it is. Of course, collecting shells per se is not harmful. However, it is only the first link in a long and unpredictable chain of events.

Firstly, when seashells dissolve, they deliver nutrients for soil-dwelling organisms to build their own shells. Moreover, birds that traditionally make their nests with shell fragments can no longer use the usual construction material. Small fish and crustaceans living near the shore lose their homes and shelters. The lack of small fish leads to predators having nothing to eat, thus breaking the entire balanced but unstable ecosystem. The collection of shells also affects other processes. For example, it increases coastal erosion.

Therefore, it is not surprising that collecting seashells is illegal in many countries today — you can get heavily fined or even involved in a criminal case. So you better leave shells on the beach to protect nature and avoid trouble with the law.

References: Links and sources

Add comment
  1. RinaNov 30, 2022 08:10
    It would be great to make a shell like in the picture, I would buy this for myself or as a gift.
    1. AntoniaDec 13, 2022 18:58
      A portable bluetooth speaker in the shape of a seashell can look great on the beach.
  2. RatnneeNov 22, 2022 17:34
    I've never put a shell to my ear, but it sounds logical.
  3. KirisNov 22, 2022 15:24
    When I was a child, I thought that the sound was made by the shell itself, which lives there.