How to Go Beachcombing

Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California
David Pu'u / Getty Images

Beachcombing is a magical way of spending time at the beach. Who hasn’t wandered along a windy shoreline, digging around in the crinkly seaweed for interesting finds? Spiraling seashells, ancient pottery sherds, and polished pieces of sea glass are just some of the objects you can discover on a seashore. Best of all, you don’t need to travel far. Your local beach can yield as much treasure as any you might visit abroad.

How to Get Started

The best time to set out is after a storm has passed. Any beach will do—sandy, shingle, shell, or rocky. Take a container for your finds, sunscreen, water, a camera, and a mobile phone. Start your expedition an hour after high tide—you’ll have the most time before the tide starts to come back in again.

The place to look is in the strandline—the straggly line of debris between the land and the sea.  Try not to remove driftwood, seaweed, or shells, as these are food and shelter for wildlife—from the tiniest of insects to mammals like foxes and raccoons.  Always check the local laws before you begin. Taking tribal artifacts, live animals, corals, and parts of whales, seals and dolphins is often illegal.

Once you’ve finished, get creative with your finds by displaying them in shadow boxes, vintage letterpress trays, or glass jars. If you want to get crafty, wind chimes, mosaics, and jewelry are all popular things to make, and there are a thousand other ideas on Pinterest.

Finding Sea Glass, Pottery, and Historical Items

Depending on where you are, ancient pottery, glass, and historical objects can wash up on the beach. The stories of these items can be rich and fascinating. In London, the River Thames washes up astonishing remnants of history every day, including Victorian toys, Georgian cufflinks, Roman coins, and Bronze Age tools.  Beaches near old potteries, like those along the Fife coastline in Scotland, are famous for ceramics. Beaches near dumps, like Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn, are known for glass from discarded bottles.

Mary McCarthy is director of The Beachcombing Centre in Maryland. Her most treasured find is a nineteenth-century carved garnet intaglio.

"Here in America, we burned and buried our trash in coastal landfills, and that's where we find our best finds now," McCarthy told TripSavvy. "There's one beach that I search in New York, where hundreds of homes were torn down. The contents of the homes were put into a landfill that now erodes to the coastline. Those people were forced to leave their homes against their will, and when I pick up something from that shoreline, it's like honoring their history."

She said beachcombers ask each other to identify their rarest finds on social media and have created a global community.  Instagram photo challenges using hashtags like #abseaglasschallenge and #matchyourpieces bring beachcombers together from all over the world.

Finding Marine Life

The strandline may look like a simple tangle of seaweed, but it can conceal all kinds of natural finds. Poke around for shiny sharks' egg cases, fragile cuttlefish bones, iridescent abalone shells, or weird-looking goose barnacles. Certain beaches yield fossilized shark teeth and even fragments of dinosaurs.

'Ocean drifters' can stay in the sea for years, even decades. Julie Hatcher, a marine conservationist from the UK and author of The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline, has been beachcombing for 25 years. Her favorite finds are tropical seeds, or "sea beans."

"They grow in a massive pod like a bean, and if they're growing over a stream and the pod bursts and the sea bean falls out, it gets carried down the stream into the sea," she said. "The idea is that they will float away to another island where they germinate and grow. They can float in the sea for 17 years and still be viable when they land on the beach."

While beachcombing, you might come across stranded whales, dolphins, or seals. There are organizations that can help in these situations, says Julie. If the animal is alive, contact local marine life rescue divers. If the animal is dead, do a Google search for your local stranding network, who will be able to discover the cause of death. If you come across a shipping spill, call the coast guard.

Cleaning Up the Beach 

Things beachcombers are also guaranteed to find include cotton swabs, food wrappers, and drinking straws we've tossed away. Kate Osborne runs Beach Bonkers, a non-profit promoting sustainable beachcombing on Suffolk's rare shingle beaches in the U.K. Her most treasured find is an 80-million-year-old fossil sea sponge.

"A million seabirds and a hundred thousand marine mammals die every single year because of plastic pollution. And that's us—there's no one else we can blame for it," Osborne said. If you find a brand new plastic bottle, she suggests, "take it home, give it a rinse and recycle it." If you've collected bagfuls of litter, contact your local government to find out how to dispose of it.

"Taking even a small amount of litter off the beach while beachcombing can make a difference," added Osborne. "If you pick a plastic bottle up off the beach, you're stopping that bottle [from] becoming a hundred thousand million fragments of plastic in the sea. What's not to feel good about?"

Beachcombing on Vacation

Beachcombing can be a fun vacation activity, but you should always check the laws in your location. Taking natural objects from National Parks in the U.S. is banned. In Bermuda, it's illegal to take sea glass. In Greece and Italy, you can be fined for removing pebbles and sand.

But you don't need to travel to try beachcombing, Osborne said. "Don't think that turquoise water and a palm-fringed beach with sand is going to be any less productive than a stony beach in your local town. They are equally important, and they equally have the potential to be full of treasure."

So what are you waiting for? Go and see what you can find. 

 Tips for Beachcombing

  • Don't beachcomb alone on empty or remote beaches.
  • Always know the tide times. (You can download an app like My Tide Times.) 
  • Never dig beneath soft cliffs as you can cause a fatal rockfall. 
  • Don't touch jellyfish, Portuguese man o' war, sea snakes, or anything that looks poisonous. (Some of these animals can sting even when they are dead). 
  • Wear sensible shoes and never beachcomb barefoot.
  • For litter, take gloves or use a litter picker and don't touch sharp objects like broken glass or metal.
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