A Day in the Life of a Beachcomber

Ron Reefman

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Seawitch submitted a new Article:

A Day in the Life of a Beachcomber

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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rcmike

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I have been to Sanibel once and there was a ton of macro algae washing up. We saw some crabs in it and a file fish along with hermit crabs. We are going to the Cape Coral area around new years. We might head out there and see what we can find again. Do you just need a fishing license to bring things back? I'll have to look it up.
 
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Ron Reefman

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I have been to Sanibel once and there was a ton of macro algae washing up. We saw some crabs in it and a file fish along with hermit crabs. We are going to the Cape Coral area around new years. We might head out there and see what we can find again. Do you just need a fishing license to bring things back? I'll have to look it up.
Yes, all you need is a Florida saltwater fishing license (or be over 65 years old) and your legal. But it really helps to know the Florida, Lee County and Sanibel collecting regulations. The state rules don't apply much to beach collecting except for the total number of live specimens you can collect (20 per licensed person per day). Lee County rules are less restrictive than Sanibel's, so Sanibel's come into play. Absolutely no collecting of live mollusks (no snails, no fighting conch, sea hares, none, zero!) and no collecting of live echinoderms (sand dollars, sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea biscuits). You can collect echinoderms at other Lee County beaches (but NO live collecting at any State Parks like Lovers Key). So crabs (stone crabs and blue crabs have a season that allows collecting), shrimp, anemones, gorgonians, macro algae are allowed. The things we find most frequently are porcelain crabs, pistol shrimp or an occasional anemone.
 
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Ron Reefman

Ron Reefman

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Man I love florida, I can't wait till I can move down there...
Come on down, we still have empty lots to build on in Cape Coral!

BTW, to everybody who has enjoyed this article even a little bit, if you want to read more take a look here:
https://www.reef2reef.com/threads/snorkeling-collecting-discussion-group.412414/

The thread says snorkeling & collecting, but in the winter we do beach walks instead of snorkeling. And we just posted new beach walk info and photos today. And I will continue to update that thread every time we do a beach walk.

Thanks for looking.
 

jokerman826

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I was born and raised in Broward county. Unfortunately the beaches I went to growing up, were always cleaned up, by the cities and park workers, quickly after storms and fronts. I cant wait to get back down there after I retire from the Navy. I never had a chance to go to the west coast, and will be when i get out. Thank you for the article.
 
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Ron Reefman

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I was born and raised in Broward county. Unfortunately the beaches I went to growing up, were always cleaned up, by the cities and park workers, quickly after storms and fronts. I cant wait to get back down there after I retire from the Navy. I never had a chance to go to the west coast, and will be when i get out. Thank you for the article.
You're welcome, it was a pleasure to write and I enjoy sharing the experience. We have a handful of local reefers who understand the collecting wildlife off the beach thing. I've never tried beach walk collecting on the east coast of Florida. I'd love to hear from anybody who lives or visits any east coast beaches (Florida or otherwise) even west coast beaches from Florida to the Pacific.
 

Seawitch

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Captain_Glass

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I live in srq and thought about doing this after this last weeks cold front that had a lot of wind and rain. But with the red tide being like it has I was worried. Have you noticed any changes due to that and do you worry about putting anything collected into a tank? @Ron Reefman
 

Waters

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My family owned a condo in Sanibel for 20+ years.....used to spend Christmas down there all the time. Unfortunately I didn't get into Reef tanks until after it was sold so I never really got to experience this side of being there. Definitely did a lot of shelling though :)
 
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Ron Reefman

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I live in srq and thought about doing this after this last weeks cold front that had a lot of wind and rain. But with the red tide being like it has I was worried. Have you noticed any changes due to that and do you worry about putting anything collected into a tank? @Ron Reefman
Last weeks cold front was a pretty good one and it did bring a lot of shells, crab traps and some live mollusks and echinoderms onto the beach. Unfortunately we can't collect either of those on Sanibel. Before you consider trying this, google your county and even city/local regulations. And you do need a valid Florida Saltwater Fishing license. I just feel the need to repeat that as often as I can so nobody makes a huge mistake and breaks the law and gets a big fine... or thinks I'm doing anything bad.

As far as I can find, the Red Tide is not an issue currently. It's more of a summer phenomenon and Hurricane Michael and the passing cold front stirred things up. I only saw one dead fish on the beach.

As to whether any animal collected may have been, or may currently be, a risk to your aquarium... I claim no scientific or biological expertise! However, during the height of the Red Tide surge I did go to a beach on Sanibel. There were lots of dead fish (one every 10 to 15 feet) and the beach got cleaned every morning. I did find a couple of sand anemones (not photosynthetic) and I brought them home. I was very concerned about the anemone's survival and the potential that they could contaminate my tank. So I kept them in a large peanut butter jar and did 2 or 3 100% water changes every day. Old water went in the sink and new water came from my tank. After 2 weeks they were still alive and actually looking pretty healthy. Both had attached to the sides of the jar after a few days. So I added them to my tank and they moved under my raise rock work (it sits on egg crate held above the sand on pvc pipe legs). They both moved down into the sand and left their tentacles laid out on the sand's surface. That was 4 or 5 months ago and they are still there.


My family owned a condo in Sanibel for 20+ years.....used to spend Christmas down there all the time. Unfortunately I didn't get into Reef tanks until after it was sold so I never really got to experience this side of being there. Definitely did a lot of shelling though :)
If you ever consider a vacation down this way, let me know. Tourist business on Sanibel has been way down due to the red Tide. Even last Saturday there weren't as many people out shelling as I'v seen in the past when even colder cold fronts went through!
 

Captain_Glass

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Last weeks cold front was a pretty good one and it did bring a lot of shells, crab traps and some live mollusks and echinoderms onto the beach. Unfortunately we can't collect either of those on Sanibel. Before you consider trying this, google your county and even city/local regulations. And you do need a valid Florida Saltwater Fishing license. I just feel the need to repeat that as often as I can so nobody makes a huge mistake and breaks the law and gets a big fine... or thinks I'm doing anything bad.

As far as I can find, the Red Tide is not an issue currently. It's more of a summer phenomenon and Hurricane Michael and the passing cold front stirred things up. I only saw one dead fish on the beach.

As to whether any animal collected may have been, or may currently be, a risk to your aquarium... I claim no scientific or biological expertise! However, during the height of the Red Tide surge I did go to a beach on Sanibel. There were lots of dead fish (one every 10 to 15 feet) and the beach got cleaned every morning. I did find a couple of sand anemones (not photosynthetic) and I brought them home. I was very concerned about the anemone's survival and the potential that they could contaminate my tank. So I kept them in a large peanut butter jar and did 2 or 3 100% water changes every day. Old water went in the sink and new water came from my tank. After 2 weeks they were still alive and actually looking pretty healthy. Both had attached to the sides of the jar after a few days. So I added them to my tank and they moved under my raise rock work (it sits on egg crate held above the sand on pvc pipe legs). They both moved down into the sand and left their tentacles laid out on the sand's surface. That was 4 or 5 months ago and they are still there.




If you ever consider a vacation down this way, let me know. Tourist business on Sanibel has been way down due to the red Tide. Even last Saturday there weren't as many people out shelling as I'v seen in the past when even colder cold fronts went through!
I will definitely look up the regulations for my area I do have a valid fishing license as i fish from my kayak a few times a week. I’ve just been hesitant about doing anything with the water around here lately.
 

Gonebad395

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Great write up and sounds super fun when I lived in Florida I lived in coco beach and wasn’t in to reefing wish I was at the time looks like so much fun.thanks for taking the time to write this up.
 

michael giordano

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In stuart fl I have been walking the beeches with my dogs every couple days for years and we don’t get any sponges like the west coast of Florida. We get sea slugs, great shells and sea fans. I have found some awesome multiple type massive conch shells. Occasional hard coral washing up on beech and we get all kinds of tropical fish washing up on really cold days every couple years.
 

Rcpilot

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Man I love florida, I can't wait till I can move down there...
We moved to Florida in April 2018. We hate it and can't wait to leave. Hopefully, we'll be listing the house for sale in April or May 2019 and headed back home to Colorado. Worst case we're stuck here for 1 more year, but we are definitely leaving by April/May 2020.
 

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We moved to Florida in April 2018. We hate it and can't wait to leave. Hopefully, we'll be listing the house for sale in April or May 2019 and headed back home to Colorado. Worst case we're stuck here for 1 more year, but we are definitely leaving by April/May 2020.
Well I hope you have a safe move back to Colorado.
 

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