Beachcombing: a Dialogue with the Sea

It has been my delight to walk strandlines throughout my living memory.  I have found some ‘treasures’ for sure, but there are others, as illustrated in The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline, that have eluded me.  The possibility of filling some of these gaps is a reason I will never tire of walking a strandline where I find one.

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This Guide to Beachcombing has been written by Dorset residents Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher, people with a complementary range of expertise in marine biology,  scuba diving, outreach, photography and a solid commitment to conservation.  They are seasoned and highly knowledgeable beachcombers and have shared so much of their knowledge and enthusiasm in their book: a beachcomber’s compendium which offers a well-informed insight into the processes and materials that contribute to the formation of strandlines: the ephemeral drifts of rejectamenta that the sea has deposited for us to find.

The opening sections introduce the strandline and give advice on how to get the best out of beachcombing.  For members of this Society, walking the strandlines is a familiar activity and indeed, regular recreational beach walkers will recognise many of the items described in the book.  From the outset the value of reporting and recording sightings is emphasised.  I thought the information in these opening section would be familiar territory for me until I  met the concept of ‘water parcels’.  They are discrete bundles of water with properties, determined by slight variation in temperature, which differ from the surrounding sea.  Think of them travelling through the water as clouds float through air.  This phenomenon helps to explain an intriguing feature of strandings; how two or more long-haul drift items may wash ashore on a UK beach within metres of each other, having travelled thousands of miles together.

There is a short section entitled ‘Keeping Safe’ which advises on the subject of tides, weather, unstable cliffs, soft muds and sinking sands. A mobile phone should form part of one’s kit and hands should be washed after poking amongst detritus and decaying material. However one glaring omission in the safety section is the matter of dangerous debris.  Stoppered plastic and glass containers are often washed in with their contents.  This may be seawater but could equally well be something hazardous or toxic. Other potential dangers are explosive items such as marine flares, and sharp objects.  This is all the more important if you have young children with you.

The contents pages indicate the exhaustive coverage of  what you may, or may not, expect to find washed up on a beach.  A short introduction to beaches leads into seaweeds then  molluscs right through the range of organic items that fetch up on the shore.  I was particularly taken with the section on Mermaids’ purses:  egg cases of twelve elasmobranch (sharks, skates and rays) species are illustrated.  Many people have heard of Mermaid’s purses but fewer have probably heard of a Mermaid’s glove (a sponge).  Collectables such as jet, amber, seaglass, desirable driftwood pieces….. all these are described and illustrated.  Sea beans, or drift seeds, are unusual and highly prized and I learnt about the Outer Hebridean folklore surrounding Mary’s Bean, a protective talisman.

However this book also deals with the downside of beachcombing and what the sea is saying to us.  Carcasses, skeletal remains, oiled birds, live and dead strandings of cetaceans and turtles tell a sorry story.  The tides dump tons of detritus: plastics, fishing litter, land-sourced and sewage related detritus and the economic consequences and the problems for wildlife are only too evident.  This is a necessary part of the dialogue the oceans have with we landlubbers.  It throws our non-biodegradeable rubbish right back at us.  Unfortunately all to often marine animals ingest plastics such as bags and, increasingly, balloons which end up in the sea.  They become ensnared in netting, the unnecessary loss of life is very sad.   Concluding sections in the book give a more positive perspective:  the strandline has its own ecosystem of plants, insects and arachnids and supports a variety of coastal birds.

The guide combines the attributes of a concise yet comprehensive treatment of beachcombing and strandlines.  A stellar feature of the book is the profusion of excellent photographs which accompany descriptions of the common and rare beach finds, natural and man-made.  What a useful book this would be to have on the bookshelves of houses in coastal towns and seaside holiday homes.

Postscript: At the time of writing this review the western and southwestern seaboards of the British Isles and Ireland are being pounded by persistent westerlies and southwesterlies, with sea states reaching high numbers on the Beaufort Scale.  News of strandings, seemingly with unprecedented frequency and abundance, are being reported on the newsfeed of the Facebook page linked to Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher’s book.  Four species of goose barnacle attached to floating substrates were cast ashore over a November weekend in Newquay.   Three Jewel Box Clam species (Chama) have been identified on plastic Stone crab pot, probably drifted from Florida, which fetched up on Praa Sands in Cornwall.  Most spectacularly a huge piece of flotsam, a section of a US spacecraft, measuring about 10m (32ft) by 4m (13ft), was spotted floating at the sea surface between Bryher and Tresco.12278723_1098281743529312_5533964571901374062_n Just failing to make landfall off the north end of the islands, it was towed ashore by local boatmen. They said “We’re grateful for all those who helped in its recovery, it was a great example of the community working together.”  What a pity no-one in that community thought to suggest that hosing the item off, there and then, might result in a lot of useful and interesting biological information being washed away.  As Steve commented on the Essential Guide’s Facebook page, “I’m afraid the ‘ authorities ‘ felt the need to steam clean them (the goose barnacles) all off , including numerous other species which would have settled, a one-off chance to study growth rates and potential invasive species on an object with an exact date of entering the Ocean…..”  Let’s hope that Steve and Julie’s guide finds it way into wider and wider circulation.