Last weekend at the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment’s Virden Center in Lewes, Delaware, I attended the fifth annual International Beachcombing Conference. It’s not as big as it sounds, really just 50 people or so from all around the United States, but they were 50 people who are passionate about beachcombing, including many repeat attendees. As a sea glass hunter, I was excited to attend and learn more about my hobby.
But this conference is not just for sea glass hunters; its focus is education. Archeologists, fossil hunters, shell collectors, sea bean collectors and many other beachcombers were there, some bearing metal scoops. I’ve never even heard of a sea bean (they’re seeds that enter the ocean’s current in one tropical place and wash up thousands of miles away; people in Newfoundland have grown tropical flowers from the Caribbean by planting them). I learned amazing new things about fossil and shark tooth hunting and can’t wait to plan a trip to Calvert Cliffs, right here in Maryland, where some of the most amazing prehistoric shark teeth can be found. A lecture by the Ocean Conservancy taught us about the frightening amount of trash we put into the ocean and how we can help.
Dr. Deacon Ritterbush, the founder of the conference, is a native Marylander, though she lives in Hawaii now. Beachcombing along the Chesapeake Bay with her parents and grandparents gave her an early love for the pastime. She began the beachcombing organization in order to “perpetuate enjoyment, stewardship and education about the coast,” and she is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Given the nickname “Dr. Beachcomb” by a little kid at a conference (it stuck), she earned her PhD while raising three kids, she’s written screenplays and books, ultimately transforming her life passion into a new career as a world expert in beachcombing.
One of the things I’ve learned is that beachcombing isn’t just about picking things up off the beach. Whether you collect a piece of sea glass, a shell, fossil or other object, you’re not collecting a thing—you’re collecting a story. The object in your hand came from somewhere, possibly tumbled by the ocean for hundreds, or in the case of fossils, even millions of years. The thing, whatever it is, once either lived or did something. Every shell or fossil used to be a living animal. Every shard of glass or pottery used to be a plate, or a bottle or a dish or any one of a thousand other things. Research into the provenance or context of a piece can be as enjoyable and fun as finding the object itself (my personal favorite things to find are sea marbles). My friend just sent me a copy of Bottle Makers and Their Marks by Julian Harrison Toulouse, a book I’d had on my Amazon wish list forever because you can date bottles or bottle bottoms by looking up symbols from the bottom of the piece. I wrote about finding the pieces of a pottery plate that became a metaphor for picking up the pieces in my life.
“Just as I have tucked these special beach treasures into my pockets,” says Dr. Ritterbush in her book (A Beachcomber’s Odyssey), “so I also folded these life lessons into my heart and they have guided me through many of life’s rocky shoals.”
Meeting other people who share my passion for collecting beach treasures was nourishing for the soul. Beachcombing can be a lonely endeavor, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s fun to meet other people and share their stories, insights and experiences. While there are some cool men who beachcomb, there’s definitely an element (since the nickname for sea glass is mermaid’s tears) of a mermaid sisterhood going on in this shared community. On Instagram and Facebook, beachcombers from around the world love to hang out and discover each other’s finds, and it’s truly a unique community of curious, intelligent, fun people. Meeting some of them in person was a treat, especially the group’s knowledgeable and passionate leader, Deacon, who they’re so fortunate to have.
“The beach gives you what you need when you need it,” says Deacon with a smile.
—See Mary McCarthy’s photos from the beachcombing conference on Instagram.