Personal Experience A Day in the Life of a Beachcomber

Read about beachcombing on the west coast of Florida beside the Gulf of Mexico.
  1. Today's article is brought to us from R.L., who we profiled recently. He has more than 15 years of experience keeping reef tanks, and he also has the good fortune to live on the west coast of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico. In his own words, you can read about beachcombing and wild collecting.

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    West coast of Florida.

    R2R1 just a nice beach photo.jpg
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    OK, so I consider myself very lucky to live just 30 minutes from the beautiful sandy beaches of Sanibel Island and only 5 hours from the Middle Keys where there is wonderful snorkeling. My wife and I go to the Keys for two and three days of snorkeling anywhere from three to five times a year between late spring and early fall while the water is warm when all that lives in the water is happy and visible. But what do we do in the winter? The water gets too cold to snorkel in anything but a fairly heavy wetsuit.

    Well, if it’s too cold to go snorkeling in the Keys, how about staying out of the water and doing a beach walk on a local SW Florida beach? Now SW Florida never sees cold fronts except in the winter, and even then we don’t get but a handful between December and March. When they pass through it’s one of the rare times we get a day or two of rain during the dry season along with westerly winds that can be quite strong and some high surf washing things up on the beach from just off shore.

    But the winter also brings some pretty cold temperatures for SW Florida, with lows in the 40’s and occasionally dipping into the 30’s. Fronts also bring clear blue skies and breezy winds that blow onshore. But even afternoon temperatures only get into the 50’s and sometimes not even out of the 40’s. Now that’s only for a day or two and then it gets back to the typical mid 60’s at night and mid 70’s during the day. That’s why we call it Paradise! But if you want to find cool stuff on the beach, you need to be out there as soon as possible after the front passes. That means it’s going to be cold (by SW Florida standards).

    Beach littered with good stuff after a storm.
    R2R2 the beach littered with good stuff.JPG
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    A typical day for us after a strong cold front passes involves us getting up, getting dressed in wetsuit bottoms and jeans, a long sleeve t-shirt, rash guard or long underwear top, a flannel shirt, an appropriate jacket and scuba booties. We make sure we have our Florida Saltwater Fishing Licenses and a bucket with a bubbler and an air stone to keep critters alive while we collect and transport back home to our aquarium. Then we drive 30 minutes out to a Sanibel beach and try to arrive before sunrise and before low tide. The beaches of Sanibel fill up quickly with snowbirds and tourists who come out early to look for cool shells. We, however, are looking for soft orange sponges, clumps of macro algae and possibly even solo sea critters that have washed up overnight and are fighting to stay alive until the tide comes in again.

    The list of critters we’ve collected off the beach (not even in the shallow water) includes several species of crabs, pistol shrimp, peppermint shrimp, sea urchins, anemones, gorgonians and more. All collected legally off various beaches and with a valid Florida Saltwater Fishing License. Otherwise you are looking at serious fines, and if you are really stupid there is potential jail time!

    A gorgonian.
    R2R3 a gorgonian on a dead shell.JPG
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    We also find, but can’t collect because they are illegal on Sanibel, serpent stars, brittle stars, small five-pointed stars, sand dollars, clams, sea cucumbers, sea hares, mollusks, snails and scallops.

    Besides all the people shelling while we are doing some collecting, we also have to beat some of the other species of local inhabitants in order to find live critters. Sometimes there are way more birds on the beach looking for food than there are vacationers looking for shells.

    The best places to find sponges with sea creatures in them that are still alive is close to the water or in rare tidal pools so they haven’t been out of the water too long. If you are a tiny sea creature, the best way to stay wet on the beach is to be inside a soft orange sponge. When I find a fist size soft orange sponge, assuming I find one at all, I’ll gentle tear it open piece by piece and look in all the tiny crevices. Porcelain crabs are common and many are incredibly small. Pistol shrimp are far less common and usually small. Peppermint shrimp are extremely rare. Serpent stars and brittle stars are fairly common, always very small and also illegal to collect on Sanibel.

    A good orange sponge to examine.
    R2R2 a potential good orange sponge .JPG
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    The small sea stars are also much less likely to survive as long on the beach inside a sponge as the porcelain crabs or shrimp inside a sponge. They are just not as well suited to be out of the water, whereas crabs and shrimp seem to survive better as long as they stay wet, even though they aren’t submerged in the water.

    Clumps of macro algae that are still green aren’t quite as common, but they can host a plethora of sea creatures. We’ve found small mollusks and snails, small sea hares, small sea cucumbers (several species), all of which are illegal. All live mollusks (anything with a shell as well as sea hares) and all echinoderms (stars, cucumbers, sand dollars, sea biscuits) are illegal to collect while on Sanibel but may be collected legally on beaches in other counties. You REALY need to check the local ordinances as the fines can be severe. If you are careful you can find some copepods which are okay to collect.

    Sometimes we find livestock just laying on the sand all by itself. We’ve seen big hermit crabs, big horse conchs, other big mollusks, 10 arm sea stars, and more. We’ve even seen parts lost off boats like a stainless steel railing off a sailboat and a couple of porthole style windows! That always makes us wonder how these came to be on the beach? Did something just fall off a boat, or is this something that came from a boat that went down for some reason?

    We’ve even found a couple of small reef octopus. Their bodies are the size of your thumb and legs long enough to wrap around your hand. One time we even found an 18 inch sharp nose shark that was in the wash where the waves are rolling up the beach and back out to sea. It was pretty obvious to us that it was at least having difficulty getting back out into deep enough water to swim away. So I picked it up, carefully, and walked it back out to deeper water and it swam away with out even so much as thank you, a good-bye wave, or a wink!

    An octopus found alive.
    R2R3a an octopus found alive inside a pen shell on the beach.JPG
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    Sometimes the days after cold fronts are a bust as far as collecting and there’s next to nothing washed up on the beach. Other days, rare days, there are even 200 pound crab traps washed up on the beach! Some days the picking is light and we may walk a few miles of beach. But on those rare days when it’s really good, we may only walk 100 yards of beach and have our limit of 40 animals (assuming we want to collect a full limit, and we rarely do).

    One of the fun things for me is explaining to so many of the visitors who are looking for shells, just what the heck I’m doing tearing sponges apart and dropping ‘stuff’ into a bucket. Almost inevitably they are from faraway states and came to Sanibel for vacation. And I understand that not many people from Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota and Arizona, to name a few, would know about the livestock we find on the beach. Most of them find it fascinating that we can find animals for our aquarium alive on the beach. After all, they came for the shells. It’s interesting to us that we don’t meet many locals out on the beach on cold mornings like these. And why would we? They can come out on nice warm afternoons and enjoy the beach.

    But on rare days we do get to the beach and start to walk only to find a trail of orange sponges that are all torn up lying on the sand like a trail of bread crumbs. That means one of my fellow aquarium club members has beat us to the beach and we have to turn around and hope we don’t find the same thing walking the other direction!

    We’ve been doing this since a friend in our local club introduced us to the idea about 12 years ago. We didn’t have great luck those first couple of years because the cold front would blow past during the week, and we had work the next day. But eventually a good front would pass, and the next day would be a Saturday or Sunday. And being perfectly honest, of all the times we’ve done this, only about one out of every 3 or 4 times is the collecting really good, and one out of 20 times is it truly exceptional. But that’s what keeps us coming back. And now that we are both retired, we don’t care what day of the week it is, just as long as it doesn’t conflict with other plans.

    And even after all these years, we are still learning about the best time to go out. It can change based on the weather conditions after the front passes, or what time of day it passes or how long it takes to pass or how strong the winds are. And then there is the question of is it better at low tide or just after high tide. The friend who introduced us to this pastime just went out late at night after work, in the dark with a flashlight, just after high tide and he found spectacular shells galore, but no sponges or macro algae. We had been out 12 hours before him, in the early morning after the front, and we found nothing! There were no sponges, no algae and not even any shells worth collecting. But other times we find things we didn’t ever expect or had never seen before. Once we found a few clumps of some invasive clams from the eastern Pacific that had green shells and were still alive.

    Invasive green clams from Asia.
    R2R3 invasive green clams from Asia.JPG
    Photos courtesy of R.L., ©2018, All Rights Reserved.

    Once we found filter feeder sea cucumbers just sitting on top of the sand bar at low tide. We had never seen them before and haven’t seen them since! In our aquarium, it buries itself all the way down in the sand until only a tiny bit of the narrow end sticks up out of the sand. Then when it’s hungry it puts out these ‘tentacle’ or ‘branches’ and filters tiny food out of the water. I even have a video of it putting one arm at a time down the mouth in the center and pulling it out again. It alternates from side to side until it has cleaned all 8 arms.

    Another friend who I used to go shelling with before I had marine aquariums said to me, “The cool thing about shelling is there are new deliveries with every wave, and every day is different.” Well, the same is true about the sea creatures we find on the beach. She was really right about that. It’s amazing how different the beach can be from day to day in both the amount of things on the beach and even what those things are. We’ve been out on days when the beach is littered with live fighting conch, and the next time we go out it’s all empty pen shells, and the time after that the beach is just sand! So we still go out every chance we get. Like I said at the start, I consider myself very lucky to be living in SW Florida!

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