Story & Photos By Katherine Pollock
Many Islanders are content to let the tourists have the beaches for the summer months and wait until fall to beach comb. I have to admit, with the exception of sea beans, about 80 percent of my entire beach finds have come in the fall and winter months. The cooler weather makes beachcombing more comfortable for folks who avoid the blazing summer days. If you haven’t yet tried fall beachcombing yet, I would certainly recommend it.
You can expect to find lots of Whelks, Quahogs and Sand dollars on the beach at this time because many of these species die when the water gets cold; thus they wash up more in fall than in summer.
You can sometimes find Sundials by the bucket load and barnacles by truckload. Every year is different. If we’re lucky enough to get the added bonus of a high tide during a storm, call in sick and go beachcombing. I’ve considered it.
Once the weather gets cold, just bundle up and dress in layers. I wear a T-shirt, sweatshirt and a wind-proof jacket with a hood. Gloves are a must, although if they get wet your hands don’t stay very warm. For the hard-core beachcomber a pair of gloves made for scuba divers works very well. Once they get wet they will insulate your hands to stay warm just like a wet suit does for surfers. Take a nice hot cup of coffee or a mug of hot chocolate. You’ll start to warm up as soon you start finding exciting things.
If the cold weather keeps you inside during the winter months there are still plenty of indoor beachcombing activities you can partake in. I use the winter months to polish sea beans in a tumbler. I have a very small tumbler so it takes a few days to polish about ten beans at a time.
I also sort through piles of shark teeth looking for rare ones that I may have missed at first glance. Hammerhead teeth are the ones I look for. They closely resemble other species and can easily be missed. Hammerhead teeth are ten times rarer than bull shark teeth, the most common tooth found on our beach.
I also sort through sea glass looking for rare and unusual pieces. Look closely for writing on glass that can identify it. Check for unusual colors. Amber and purple are two rarer colors of sea glass. You can also make a mosaic craft with the mounds of sea glass you have. Spread all the pieces out on a table and see what you can create.
By Katherine Pollock
You may have seen or even stepped on a gooey tar-like substance on the beach. It’s generally in the sea grass and sometimes hard to spot because it blends in with the dark dried sea grass. On very hot days it can stick to your shoe; or, if you are barefoot, it will leave a hard-to-get-off black smudge on your foot. If it looks and smells like asphalt, then what you have found is Asphaltum. The little blobs are usually about three to six inches in diameter and about an inch thick but sometimes larger pieces wash up. Some of the older pieces are very hard, more like coal. You might find shells and sand imbedded into the surface. You can even find pieces shaped and rolled by hand.
Your first thoughts might be that an oil company was to blame for the stuff washing ashore. But this is one phenomenon that oil companies have no part of. Asphaltum has been washing ashore for thousands of years, long before any oil rigs existed. The stuff oozes up from the ocean floor naturally from the seepage far beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Since it hardens when it comes in contact with cold water and floats away in small amounts it most likely hasn’t caused any environmental threat to birds or sea life. Although I would imagine an unwitting sea turtle has probably swallowed a chunk and felt the ill effects.
The islands’ first beachcombers, the Karankawa Indians, were some of the first to find the tar useful. Five hundred years ago they gathered the gummy substance and melted it down. In the molten stage it had many uses. One important use was to coat the bottoms of their canoes, making them more waterproof and longer lasting. They also used it to decorate pottery. You might find shards of the sandy colored earthenware made of a sand and paste known as Rockport Pottery on the beach. Patterns of black, wavy and geometric lines, dots and triangles were used to adorn their bowls and vases. Some vessels used to hold liquids were coated with a thick black layer to help keep the liquids in.
Asphaltum was most widely used by Coastal Indians as an adhesive. They mended cracked pottery and glued broken pieces back in place. It has also been used to create tools similar to a hoe made out of a half quahog shell with asphaltum used to adhere it to a stick. Arrow heads have also been found along the coast with traces of black substance on the base where it appears the tar was used to help glue the arrowhead to the shaft.
So be careful where you step while you’re on the beach and take a closer look at it when you find it. Imagine how much you would need to coat your canoe!
By Katherine Pollock
During my years of beachcombing I’ve met collectors of just about everything I could imagine you will find on the beach. It wasn’t until last year that I heard about a gal from Galveston that had a unique collection of beach finds from the west end. I guess you could call her a beachcomber with a shoe fetish.
By Katherine Pollock
Barnacles are members of the crustacean family related to crabs and shellfish. You may find clusters of the large pink barnacle shells on the beach after a storm. The shells, usually found in clusters, are made up of overlapping plates that are attached together. They form a single volcano shaped cell with which one barnacle can occupy. Sometimes large masses of these shells wash up, giving the beach a pink hue from a distance. You can collect single cells and glue them together if you don’t find large clusters. Be careful to look inside the shells before you keep them, some may still be housing live barnacles. You do not want to mess with these, they will begin to smell bad very quickly. There are plenty of empty shells for collecting.
White acorn barnacles live their adult lives attached permanently to something sturdy. They secrete a cement type glue to adhere themselves to a substrate where they will live out their lives. Their natural glue excretion is some of strongest found in nature. You can find large colonies of them on jetties. The surf brings plankton and oxygen to them with the moving tides and they filter the water with feathery looking legs. Goose barnacles are usually white shells with a wormlike neck. They are also in large colonies attached to tree limbs or other wrack. If they are in the surf you can observe them feeding. They squirm around and open the shells if undisturbed. Don’t try to take these barnacles home. If it’s attached to a surface, there is still something inside.
Barnacles live in large colonies for a reason. Since they can’t move barnacles need to mate with their closest neighbor. They accomplish this with the aid of having both sex organs. This assures the survival of the colony. The larva leaves the shells and swims around as plankton until adulthood. The large masses of them helps to assure that some of them will survive. Their greatest threats are some shore birds, sheepshead and of course, polluted water. Oil spills top the charts of colony killers.
I have collected someof the pink barnacles and cleaned them with a light bleach solution and put them in my fish tank. A quarter cup of bleach per gallon of water is plenty.Too much bleach will remove the pink color from the shells.
Some pet shops I have visited say not to put anything found on the beach in your fish tank but I have never had a problem with it. Pet shops sell the same barnacle clusters for about $20 for a grapefruit size bunch. I’m sure they have been well cleaned and may be worth that.
On a good day I have collected two fi ve-gallon buckets of them in less than an hour. If you do want to try putting them in your fish tank,do so with caution. Don’t just toss them in with your favorite expensive fi sh without knowing the risk.
With the oil in the Gulf its quite possible to have lot more barnacles washing up than usual. Only time will tell