About 1,000 shipping containers a year go overboard into the oceans. Reportedly 18,000 Nike Shoes are on their way to a beach near you. Another container, this time limited to one style of shoe, was lost and should keep the trademark swoosh a common sight on Northwest beaches.
For most people, beachcombing is about finding things more traditional. Beachcombing is about serendipity and simplicity. No fancy equipment is needed. All you need is a copy of tide tables and a small bag for the loot. An extra bag to pick up garbage is also a nice touch.
Beachcombing doesn’t require any special skills, just some common sense. High tides carry materials in and outgoing tides leave them on the beach. The higher the tide and the stormier the sea usually means better beachcombing. This makes winter the peak of the beachcombing season, but any time of year will offer seashells and unknown surprises.
To find the most desired beachcombing treasures, you’ll need to find them first, so serious beachcombers seeking the increasingly rare glass floats or a mysterious message in a bottle, start at high tide. As the tide recedes, shells and agates can be deposited anywhere between the high and low tide line. So, even on a crowded beach, if you beachcomb at the edge of the water as the tide is going out, there are remarkable souvenirs from nature to be found.
Sand dollars are a common beach find along the sandy shores of the northwest Pacific coast. The sand dollar is a member of the sea urchin family and can be more than three inches across or smaller than a dime. When alive, the sand dollar is covered with a “crew-cut” of tiny purple spines. The gray or white sand dollar found on the beach is the skeleton of this unique sea creature.
Several kinds of clams inhabit coastal waters and their shells are common beachcombing booty. Pacific razor clams are oblong and grow to about seven inches. The shell has a caramel colored coating, which wears off leaving the polished white shell beneath. The gray-white oval shells of several other varieties of clams range in size from about an inch to the whopping eight-inch shell of the horse clam. Cockles are clams with rounded ribs and clear growth rings. It can grow to more than five inches and can vary in color from yellow-brown to gray or get bleached white from sun and sand.
The Northwest coast is also known for agates. These smoothly polished stones come in a wide variety of colors and are usually translucent. Ranging from white to red, green, yellow or virtually clear, agates often have streaks of colors and patterns which occur with the presence of impurities. Agates are members of the chalcedony (micro-crystalline quartz) family of minerals and as many as 20 different varieties can be found along beaches of the Northwest coast. A common form of chalcedony, carnelian has shades of red due to iron, ranging from light brownish-red to deep transparent red. Agates don’t come from the ocean as they are washed loose from eroding shorelines. So, the best agate hunting is often following a storm or after a large amount of coastal erosion.
There are many interesting pieces of the natural marine world to observe on a beachcombing adventure. Not all of them collectible and in fact, many of them are still alive. Mole crabs are commonly seen digging themselves into the sand and endless blobs of stranded jellyfish dot the shoreline (these don’t preserve well in your box of keepsakes). During the winter, it’s common to see the long rope-like bull kelp washed up on beaches. A gas filled balloon at one end keeps this amazing plant afloat.
The beachcomber will also occasionally encounter beached sea mammals including seals, sea lions & occasionally whales. If you find a stranded animal, keep a distance, keep dogs away & notify authorities with a location and description. What will you discover today? Maybe nothing, but beachcombing is always good for the soul. Prepare to get your feet wet, keep your eyes open & who knows what you’ll find. (Peclian Post (Feb-Mar 2001)