MELBOURNE BEACH, Fla. -- And then there was the
day last year when the Barbie butts started washing
Cathie Katz got calls and e-mails, dozens of them,
from fellow beachcombers along America's coastlines. They were
finding dozens of peach-colored plastic derrieres, legs, torsos that
appeared to be pieces of Barbie dolls.
"There were just too
many for it to be a coincidence," Katz recalled. "Too many for
children to be leaving them behind on the beach."
parts remain a mystery. But they are important to Seattle
oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who's been studying drifting objects
for 30 years. He uses the beachcombers' reports around the world to
track cargo spills that loose millions of items from ships into the
ocean each year.
Thanks to an international network of
beachcombers -- a group becoming more connected, organized and
efficient -- environmentalists and scientists can now follow things
swept from one place to another in the ocean's roiling currents.
That's important for tracking everything from weather systems to the
movement of oil spills.
Thousands of beachcombers, once
considered a solitary lot, now correspond on the Internet and meet
several times a year to show off their finds: There are the
Beachcombers Fun Fair in March in Ocean Shores, Wash., the
Conchologists (shell collectors) of America Convention in Florida in
July, and the International Sea-Bean (drift seeds) Symposium in
October in Florida, which Katz organizes.
up on beaches everywhere. Shoes and shells. Computers and crabs.
Rocket parts and body parts. Money. Toys. Cocaine. Toothbrushes.
"If humans use it, it's out there," said
Ebbesmeyer, 57, who publishes the 600-circulation Beachcombers'
Alert!, a quarterly newsletter reporting the stuff both natural and
man-made that spotters find worldwide.
At his Web site
(www.beachcombers.org), visitors may print out a checklist to help
Ebbesmeyer keep track of found items. Categories include "Military
ordnance (dangerous)," "Stranded marine creatures," "Glass fishing
floats," and "Unmentionables," such as toilet seats and
Perhaps the most publicized cargo spill was of
nearly 5 million LEGO toys that washed overboard from the container
ship Tokio Express off Land's End, England, in 1997. Beachcombers
are still gathering the little plastic pieces, even some with
sea-themes -- rafts, flippers and octopuses.
Between 100 and
200 massive ocean shipping containers are lost to the seas annually,
said Michael McDaniel, an attorney with Countryman & McDaniel, a
Los Angeles customs broker law firm. The losses run into the
hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
often avoid admitting the mishaps, fearing they may be billed for
cleanup costs, experts say. And so, anything that crashes overboard
in rough seas is simply carried away and forgotten.
unless it makes its way to a beach, along with other flotsam and
bits of nature, where someone like Bill Pope eagerly
Pope, 76, displays his finds in his small guesthouse
on the Louisiana shoreline. "We refer to it as our museum," he
There's a World War II machine gun round. A dolphin
skull. Three bottles with notes inside. An oil exploration device
with an offer of $250 for its return.
"Actually, I found that
one, but he claimed it," said Pope's wife, Bess, 73. "There was
The retirees divide their time between
Alexander, Ark., and their beach house 20 miles inside Louisiana
from Port Arthur, Texas, Bill Pope said.
"Last time we were
down there, I found something really unusual," he added. "It looks
like maybe a petrified cow's tooth."
David Williams, a
35-year-old graphic artist from Charlotte, N.C., has come across
more ominous items: Blood bags and hypodermic
"There's a lot of hospital waste out there," he
said. He prefers collecting the toys that wash up: Action figures,
soldiers, Disney characters.
What first got Williams
interested in beachcombing 10 years ago were the dozens of varieties
of drift seeds, also called sea beans, that he found while living in
Florida. "Some are beautiful, some are very strange," he
Katz, 53, is known as the Sea-Bean Lady, author of six
nature books including "The Little Book of Sea-Beans and Other Beach
Sea beans drop from trees and vines into rivers
in South and Central America and the Caribbean. From there, they
meander out to sea. The seeds are especially buoyant, with a hard
shell that discourages hungry fish. Some are small as a grape,
others large as a watermelon. They seem to be made to float
thousands of miles on ocean currents for many years. Why, no one
"I call them little messengers from other lands," Katz
Formerly a senior editor at Johns Hopkins University's
Applied Physics Laboratory at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Katz now
publishes a newsletter, The Drifting Seed, for 600 enthusiasts in 20
countries -- including a woman in Chicago who is so nuts about the
beans she has them tattooed on her shoulder.
As the Sea-Bean
Lady, Katz speaks at schools and organizes the symposium, which last
year lured beachcombers from as far away as England and Africa. She
also oversees the Web site www.seabean.com.
beans are her passion, Katz considers anything she finds
beachcombing a treasure. Many favorites land in her beach box, a
well-worn wooden chemist's cabinet that she totes to schools. Other
items are used to create elaborate collages that hang in her sunny
She's most at home on the beach. "Here, this is a
pelican feather," she said on a breezy morning, bending down to
pluck a long quill from the Florida sand. "They're used to make
A few more feet, another find: "Look, a
hamburger bean! That's good luck." That's a brown sea bean with a
dark stripe around its middle -- and it does indeed look like a
A dried chunk of honeycomb-like material is part
of an egg case from a lightning whelk snail; it contains teensy
shells holding more whelk snails. "Beachcombers collect all the
stuff that other people just pass by," said Katz, picking it
Katz favors clothes with big pockets for her finds. She
prowls the "wrack line," a strip of debris a good ways in from the
water. That's where the sea beans are. Shells and heavier items
generally lodge in the "swash zone" near the surf's
It's a misconception that the best beachcombing is
early in the morning. "Any time after the tide goes out is a good
time," she said.
And for a beachcomber, time spent on the
shore is never time wasted.
As Williams said, "It's a good
day walking on the beach. If you find something, that's even
(Dru Sefton can be contacted at email@example.com.)