How to Beachcomb

Score delightful treasures along the beaches of Washington and Oregon
Posted August 08, 2014

Our expert: Ravenna-based oceanographer and self-described “flotsamologist” Curtis Ebbesmeyer, coauthor of Flotsametrics and the Floating World and a quarterly “Beachcombers’ Alert” (, a compilation of recent finds, including shells, sea glass and at least 11 kelp-covered boats believed to be debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan that washed onto the Washington coast. Want to learn more about the best places to visit along the coast? Read our full story here.

Essential gear: A tide table, rain gear, plastic bags, camera, backpack, binoculars, gloves, cell phone, plenty of water, snacks, flashlight, good walking stick, toilet paper and a first aid kit. Ebbesmeyer is not a fan of metal detectors, which are prohibited on some beaches.

Debris to avoid: Aluminum canisters that are the size of water bottles, with red or white plastic screw tops; these canisters can contain poison, meant to kill rodents on grain ships, and touching them can be dangerous. Also, taking metal off many beaches (National Parks and Bureau of Reclamation lands and waterways) is a no-no. If you discover human remains (this happens; see strangest find, below), call 911 and stay nearby until the authorities arrive.

Favorite Northwest beachcombing spots: La Push, Washington, especially Second Beach (good for tsunami debris and glass fishing floats); Ecola State Park, north of Cannon Beach, Oregon, where the views are

Strangest find: Human skeleton (minus the left arm!) in a survival suit found in 1982 in Hawaii. Ebbesmeyer also finds lots of messages in bottles, many of them more than 30 years old. Some of the messages simply ask for a reply, others are part of tracking research, and there has been the occasional love letter.

Advice for newbies: Even if you don’t find debris, enjoy the other treasures of the beach, such as bird watching, wildlife and sunsets. Treat each outing as an adventure; you can never have a bad day at the beach.