Comber's delight: 8 exceptional beaches for seaside treasure hunting
From Hawaii to Brooklyn, we’ve scoured the country for the top beachcombing hotspots.
Wed, May 21, 2014 at 12:44 PM
Now this is a bucket list …
Both serious activities and excellent methods of busying yourself while taking an epic stroll along the beach, beachcombing and shelling are a nature lover’s version of playing the slots (albeit a much more meditative and physically intensive one): it’s all about timing, patience, luck and having a sturdy vessel on hand in which to tote all that precious loot. For many, hitting the jackpot plays into it, although you shouldn’t start the day expecting to walk away with a rare treasure that’s washed ashore. Even dedicated beachcombers can spend hours meandering/hunting and, at the end of the day, go home with nothing more than a sunburned neck, sore legs and a bag of garbage.
There are few rules to a successful beachcombing expedition, although as anyone with experience plucking things from the sand can tell you, the most fruitful yields come immediately after a large storm (hurricanes can really churn stuff up), right before low tide or right after high tide (although this can vary by location) and on less-trafficked beaches. The more remote, the better, given that you’ll encounter less bucket-wielding competition on the prowl for the shiny, the unusual and the potentially profitable. Also, be aware of any regulations that may forbid you from actually taking anything off the beach. At some beaches, taking home a bucketful of souvenirs is perfectly kosher, while at others it’s discouraged.
From the Outer Banks to the Gulf Coast to, err, Brooklyn, we’ve scoured the country for the top beachcombing hotspots, each offering something different in terms of both overall atmosphere and what you can expect to discover. And since there are so many great treasure-strewn beaches out there worth exploring, do tell us about your favorite spot for coastal hunting and gathering in the comments section — that is, if you don’t mind publicly sharing the secret.
1. Calvert Cliffs State Park, Lusby, Maryland
Photo: Rick Wagner/Flickr
Although Maryland doesn’t exactly scream “beachcombing bonanza,” Chesapeake Bay is an outstanding place for a bit of old-fashioned coastal treasure hunting, particularly for those after something very specific: fossilized megalodon teeth. Renowned for its wealth of XL-sized shark (and crocodile) teeth and other well-preserved leftovers from the Micocene era (we’re talking 10 to 20 million years ago) including Chesapecten (giant scallops) and Ecphora (sea snails), the beaches of Calvert Cliffs State Park on the Chesapeake’s western shore are an internationally renowned fossil hunter’s paradise. On that note, be aware that accessing the beach requires a not-too-grueling 2-mile hike through the park, so be sure to pack light (but don’t forget a sieve, shovel and bug spray). And although you won’t leave with a pocket full of shark teeth, other popular Mid-Atlantic beachcombing spots include Cape Henelopen State Park in beautiful Lewes, Delaware; and a quick ferry ride across the Delaware Bay is New Jersey’s Cape May, a historic Victorian seaside resort famed for its “diamonds” (aka sea-polished quartz pebbles).
2. Dead Horse Bay (“Bottle Beach”), Brooklyn, New York
Photo: Jason Eppink/Flickr
These days, your chances of stumbling across equine carcasses washed up on the shores of this small body of water within the Gateway National Recreation Area are slim. This is probably a good thing unless your idea of a fun day at the beach involves dry heaving. Once home to a smattering of 19th century glue factories, fertilizer plants (hence the bay’s delightful name) and other unsavory industrial enterprises, this somewhat tricky-to-access stretch of beach heralded by Brooklyn Magazine as the borough’s “Best Secret Beach” is a magnet for hipster treasure hunters and kitchen glove-clad urban scavengers who all come for the old-timey (read: non-plastic) detritus. Apothecary bottles, creepy porcelain dolls, machinery, shoes, rotary telephones, and so on bubble up from a gigantic decommissioned landfill underneath the marshes that’s been steadily leaking its contents since the 1950s. The whole thing is rather unsettling – not to mention smelly – and you may have to fend off Apartment Therapy readers in order to get your hands on the vintage perfume bottle of your dreams. Still, for a day of beachcombing with a distinctly post-apocalyptic vibe, you can’t beat Dead Horse Bay.
3. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California
Photo: Sarah and Jason/Flickr
Part of MacKerricher State Park in beautiful Mendocino County, California, most of Glass Beach (actually three beaches) is technically a “look but don’t take” affair given that it falls under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. “The truth of the matter is that it is a misdemeanor to remove any artifacts from state park property,” explains park ranger Tim Quandt to Fort Bragg’s tourism website. “Park rangers have not begun citing offenders … yet, but that day will eventually arrive.” Still, it’s a well-trafficked bucket-list destination – Sea Glass Journal refers to the beach as a “mecca for sea glass collectors” – for dedicated coastal foragers, some indeed toting buckets, who venture off scenic Highway 1 to spend hours upon hours rooting around for smooth and sparkling treasures churned up by Mother Nature. The glass is the by-product of decades of unchecked garbage dumping in the area – up until the late 1960s, Fort Bragg residents would simply toss their trash – junked cars and household appliances included – off the cliffs and into the Pacific. While extensive cleanup efforts have erased much of the man-made damage inflicted on the beach and the surrounding coastline, the glass, broken down over the years into sand-polished iridescent shards, remains.
4. Lincoln City, Oregon
The wild and wonderful Oregon coast is a world-class destination for treasure hunters seeking agate, jasper, driftwood, fossils and a wide variety of flotsam and jetsam (just don’t expect to end the day with a plastic bag filled with shells). On Oregon’s central coast, Lincoln City is a fine place to kick off a beachcombing expedition given that it’s a town that truly encourages – and celebrates – maritime treasure hunting. Every day October through May (weather permitting), colorful hand-blown glass fishing floats of varying sizes, each signed and numbered by a local artist, are placed above the tide line along the town’s nearly 8-mile expanse of beach by designated “float fairies.” Essentially, Lincoln City’s annual Finders Keepers event is like a months-long Easter egg hunt but with more seaweed and muck – and, yep, you find it, you keep it. Although your chances of stumbling upon a “new” glass float around Lincoln City are relatively high considering that thousands of them are deposited each year, most serious beachcombers are after the real deal: Japanese glass fishing floats that once drifted ashore with regularity on beaches across Washington, Oregon and Alaska. In the age of plastic commercial fishing accouterment, these antique floats crafted from recycled sake bottles are no longer actively used but you can still find them on occasion … just be ready to put up a fight if someone spots one at the same time as you given that these beautiful – and valuable – collectibles can fetch a pretty penny on eBay.
5. Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Photo: Amy Merideth/Flickr
Shelling is a serious business on the Outer Banks and there are many primo spots to root around in the sand for regional specialties like whelks, scallops, coquina clams and North Carolina’s state shell, the somewhat elusive Scotch bonnet. And if you want to blend in with
grizzled seasoned OBX locals, be aware that this is a two-bucket kind of place: one bucket for treasures and another for trash that you may find along the way. Far-flung and more sparsely developed than the tourist-congested sandbars to the north, Ocracoke Island (aka the place where Blackbeard spent his final swarthy days and where and the natives talk kind of funny) is a bona fide beachcombing hotspot and, along with nearby Portsmouth Island, is where in-the-know Outer Bankers get their shell game on. And for those who would rather take a pass on hunting for Scotch Bonnets and sand dollars before “hoi toid” (high tide), enchanting Ocracoke and its 16 miles of wild and wonderful coastline (the beaches are considered part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore) is still very much worth a detour.
6. Padre Island National Seashore, Texas
Photo: Terri Ross/Flickr
Offering over 70 miles of completely undeveloped bliss along the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a lot to do at Padre Island National Seashore: birding, swimming, fishing, windsurfing, turtle-watching and retrieving treasures from the surf. It’s a mixed bag – or bucket, rather – of what exactly you’ll stumble across on Padre Island but seashells, driftwood and sea beans are all biggies as are, in the words of the National Park Service, “things that have been lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and other marine activity.” Provided that you don’t scoop up anything with a critter living inside of it or any non-organic materials that could be described as being remotely “ancient,” you’re free to keep any treasures found within Padre Island National Seashore (just keep that bucket 5-gallons or under). And although all units of the NPS have a strict “no metal detector” policy, this is a biggie within the confines of Padre Island National Seashore given that the barrier island’s history is rich with tales of shipwrecks, sand pirates and buried treasure. Metal detector-brandishing treasure hunters may have better luck in the resort town of South Padre Island where the devices are not verboten and the sundry items – jewelry, watches, coins, dignity – inadvertently left behind by inebriated spring breakers in the sand are plentiful.
7. Sanibel Island, Florida
If you’re someone who likes to hit the beach with a bucket, a trowel, a tube of Chapstick and a big floppy hat, Sanibel Island needs little or no explanation. After all, folks from across the world flock to this laid-back, wildlife refuge-dominated barrier island on Florida’s Gulf Coast generally to do one of three things: golf, laze around and spend hours upon hours surveying the island’s stunning white sand beaches for treasures, specifically seashells. First-time visitors and those otherwise unaware of Sanibel’s most popular recreational activity might be struck by the terrible posture that seems to afflict nearly everyone on the shrimp-shaped island. Good lord Alice, why is everyone waddling around, hunched over with their butts raised in the air? This, of course, would be none other than the famed “Sanibel Stoop,” the official stance of the island’s beachcombing conchologists. And even if you’d rather not join your fellow vacationers – and some rather competitive locals – in the shell-scavenging melee, Sanibel’s Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum, home to over 150,000 specimens, is still very much worth a visit.
8. Shipwreck Beach, Lanai, Hawaii
As one would imagine, the Hawaiian Islands are positively lousy with unburied treasure-strewn expanses of sand, each offering beachcombers a little something different: sea glass, shells, sea beans, driftwood and the like. But for those looking to avoid the puka shell-collecting masses, the best hunting grounds can, predictably, be found a bit off the beaten path. Low-key – and traffic light-less – Lanai, the former Dole pineapple plantation now almost entirely owned by bellicose billionaire Larry Ellison, is an excellent place to start. Requiring a four-wheel drive on unmarked roads, the journey required to reach Kaiolohia, or Shipwreck Beach, from Lanai’s resorts may be daunting but the payoff well worth it: Over 8 miles of wild and windswept coastline littered with a variety of beachcombing booty like shells, Japanese glass floats and the occasional bit of intriguing trash. Also a popular spot for sunbathing in near-complete solitude (just don’t go swimming), a rusting WWII oil tanker breached on a coral reef off the island’s rugged northeast coast provides for an instant – and highly visible – reminder of how this remote patch of paradise got its name. And if you can, get a peek of Federation Camp, a nearby assemblage of fishing huts constructed in the 1930s entirely from driftwood and scrap lumber washed ashore at Shipwreck Beach.
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