I come from a family of dedicated, competitive beachcombers. We’ve established a daily morning beach ritual during our trips to Kona, and have also encountered sea glass and shells on both U.S. coasts.
There’s not much in the way of wisdom that I can impart to aspiring beachcombers, since it’s a very personal, simple activity: all you need is a shoreline and the willingness to look closely. So take the notes that follow with a grain of salt (or, perhaps, sand) and go out there yourself, if you can! You never know what you might discover!
On ethical collecting:
First of all, keep in mind that beach combing doesn’t always entail collecting things! It’s easy to find shells, photograph or sketch them, and then leave them untouched.
If you adore ocean treasures and want to acquire your own shell-filled cabinet of curiosities, though:
Make sure your shells are empty! Respect sea life by only collecting shells that no longer have animals living in them. These include the original mollusk inhabitants as well as hermit crabs, who have a tendency to claim spacious unoccupied shells for their own!
Most shells that wash up onshore are slightly broken or empty already, and it’s usually easy to take a quick look inside and ensure there’s no one home. If you want to be doubly cautious, though, check for grains of sand or other objects stuck in the shell’s opening. Usually an animal wouldn’t let that kind of obstruction slide for long.
On beachcombers’ “fool’s gold”:
Remember how I mentioned that most washed-up shells are broken? If you prefer intact specimens, be wary of those that look perfect at first…
…but prove a little more battle-worn upon closer inspection!
I collect cowries, augers, and torrid shells: all of which are fairly hardy. More delicate beauties, like this sea urchin shell, are best left on the beach unless you have some padding handy.
On the dangers of shelling:
The old “never turn your back on the ocean” adage is very applicable for beachcombers! You never know when a surprise wave might sweep in.
If you’re exploring tidepools or snorkeling over a reef in Hawai’i, be mindful of some of the more hazardous creatures that call these areas home. I’m not talking about sharks, but the cone shells that are home to snails that inject their prey and enemies with a highly venomous toxin. Avoid cones if you can! (The two pictured above are empty and have been photographed from their safe (round, big, closed) ends–you never want to be across from the pointy tip of a cone shell.)
On leaving the beach a little better than you found it:
If you do find some shells to take home, lucky you! You may, in turn, want to be kind to the ocean that randomly delivered those finds to your hands. If you’re searching the sands for shells anyway, why not do a little trash collecting too, and keep your beach clean? The reason why I love collecting sea glass, fishing floats, and other random detritus is because they offer a win/win situation: the ocean frees itself of a bit of human jetsam and I get pretty glass and objects!