Issue 12.6: December 2009 / January 2010

Time and Tide

story by Deacon Ritterbush
photo by Megan Lloyd

Beachcombing has always been important in my life, so much so that I’m now a professional beachcomber who lectures, teaches workshops and writes about the beachcombing experience. After a lifetime of exploring shorelines across the globe, I’ve come to understand that beachcombing offers up much more than pocket treasure. It’s a meditation that teaches patience, acceptance and gratitude. It’s a natural antidote to fear and grief. And it connects us more deeply with people we love. Many of these lessons I learned while combing the beaches of Hawaii.

I spent twenty-five years in Hawai‘i, having moved from the East Coast to attend graduate school. After class I’d explore beaches along Oahu’s North Shore, by Diamond Head and Waikiki or in state parks. Sadly, except for some pebbles and bleached cowries, I had little to show. Hawaii’s gorgeous shorelines seemed barren of treasure, a disappointment many seasoned combers share when they first visit the Islands. I later learned that this is partly because Hawaii is a relatively young island chain and thus lacks the extensive reefs where ornately shelled mollusks thrive. It’s also because the powerful surf crushes the shells before they can reach shore.

But I also came to see that I was the problem, too. Finding treasures like lightning whelks on the Jersey shore or sea glass on Chesapeake Bay had been too easy. I was spoiled. I lacked the refined eye for Hawaii beachcombing. I didn’t know when and where to look. It never occurred to me, for instance, that beaches near dump sites or by reefs known to claim ships, like Lanai’s Shipwreck Beach, might yield great artifacts. Or that I’d find more if I combed a few hours on either side of low tide, or during winter when waves, rain and wind churn things up.

As I learned to search more patiently and less expectantly, I saw that Hawaii’s beaches offered myriad gifts: gigantic limpet shells, artfully weathered driftwood, old ceramic shards. And a personal favorite: sea gems—lustrous fragments of sea and sand-worn glass.

I found a trove of sea gems on “Glass Beach,” which is near a dumpsite by Port Allen on Kauai. As the world has moved from glass to plastic, the lion’s share of beach glass these days is white, beer-bottle green or brown. But Hawaiian sea gems come in a wide range of colors like chartreuse, turquoise, lavender—even hard-to-find oranges, yellows and reds. Sea gems were also abundant at Onomea Bay on the Big Island, where combers might even find frosted marbles and colorful shards of porcelain that had once been Chinese rice bowls and Japanese teacups.

Sometimes I didn’t have to search for treasure; it found me. Sitting alone on an empty Oahu beach the year after my mother died, I saw a miracle: a rare glass fishing float—a “sea bubble”—bobbing by. Used by European and Asian fishermen until the 1970s to buoy their nets, these floats occasionally tore away in rough weather and drifted in the Pacific Ocean, sometimes for decades. Although most break, some finally find safe haven on beaches all over the world. That float, which rested at my bedside, served as a constant comfort, reminding me that despite my grief, the currents of my life would eventually return me to a safe, joyful harbor.

Years later I was combing another favorite Hawaii beach—Haena—on Kauai’s North Shore. My husband and I were there on vacation, trying to recover from the heartbreak of a miscarriage. We hadn’t been communicating much; things were strained. But the day was warm and sunny, the sky a cornflower blue, and waves broke in perfect formation on the reef. As I beachcombed, I saw children laughing, birds flying, palm fronds moving with the tradewinds. On his way to take a swim, my husband slipped something into my hand. I watched him dive into the water, and then I opened my fist to find a perfect coral heart nesting there.

Deacon Ritterbush (a.k.a. Dr. Beachcomb) is the author of the award-winning book A Beachcomber’s Odyssey, Vol. I: Treasures from a Collected Past.