An innate part of life as an Islander is an undeniable obsession with hunting for treasure. Our minds are enraptured by the tales of Jean Lafitte--minted by time and burined by history. They are saturated with the endless mysteries and enduring promises of an ever changing seascape.
But as the tide rolls in, the veil is lifted ever so slightly, and at the water's edge is found a portal to far-off times and distant places. Beachcombers journey tenaciously along these miles of shifting sands for the reward of a brief but intimate glance into the secrets of the sea.
Sharks lose their teeth naturally throughout their lifetime,
which means there are billions of them in every ocean.
Yet Galveston is one of only a handful of beaches in the
United States where fossilized shark teeth find their way to
the shore after traversing the oceans for thousands—even
During fossilization, the teeth absorb sediment that
changes the tooth from white to gray, black, or brown. The
sediments in the Gulf of Mexico can also add interesting
color combinations or patterns made from several colors.
Shark teeth are typically found in the “shell hash,” the
accumulations of smaller shells and larger pieces of
sediment that are deposited by the tide in noticeable rows
along the shoreline.
Sharks have five or six rows of teeth that push forward as
they grow. The teeth in the front fall out and are replaced
by the row behind them, and this continues throughout
the shark’s lifespan. This ensures that sharks have new
sharp teeth for ripping and shredding prey.
The front teeth often break off from biting into bones,
which is why many teeth are found with the tips missing.
It takes ten thousand years for a tooth to fossilize, and
the teeth found in Galveston can be anywhere from ten
thousand to two million years old.
The most common species of shark tooth found locally
is Carcharias, which includes Bull sharks, Duskies, and
Blacktip, although the teeth of hammerheads are not
unusual. Among the nine total species of hammerhead,
the ones most often found are from Great Whites,
Snaggletooth, Mako, Sand, Lemon, and Tiger Sharks.
On rare occasions, a Megalodon will appear, but those are
more likely to be found along Florida coasts. Most shark
teeth species can be identified based on the shape, size,
root shape and serrations.
Shark teeth are the most common fossil found on the
planet, although they still do not cease to remain a
most valuable find of local beachcombers. Many people
search in vain for years for the elusive shark tooth, often
postulating that the whole concept is a myth.
For this reason, hunting for shark teeth is viewed by many
as far more than merely a beach find; for some, the hunt
itself is a unique experience of its own, underscored with
spiritual elements and an opportunity to see from broader
Jane Young, one of the Island’s most prolific collectors
whose personal record is 165 teeth in one day, says, “It is
a state of mind, like transcendental meditation, you don’t
see anything else.”
“It really healed my heart,” says Karla Klay, director of
Galveston’s beloved Artist Boat, who took to the beach
after the loss of her father and grandmother several years
ago. “Every time I found one, it was as if the Universe was
saying, ‘We are with you.’” Karla refers to finding shark
teeth as a “Zen art… At first I was so obsessed with looking
for them, I couldn’t find them.”
Fellow hunter Beth Thomas agreed. “You have to be faked
out many times, and then right at the time you let go, you
find one,” Thomas says.
Shark vertebrae fossils are also a good find. They also absorb sediment while fossilizing and are predominately
grayish to black in color.
They are generally about one-inch diameter round discs,
a quarter inch thick on the outside and thinner toward the
center. They can be larger or smaller depending on the
size of the shark. They resemble a large coat button. Look
for them in the same place as shark teeth or closer to the
dunes in the large shell hash.
Sea beans are one of the easiest and most popular things
to find on the beach during spring and early summer. The
beans come in many shapes, colors, and sizes. As with all
beachcombing prizes, once the first one is found it gets
easier to find them more frequently.
Sea beans are seeds and fruits from tropical plants and
vines of coastal areas around the world that fall into
rivers and then drift into the ocean. Once in the ocean,
the currents can carry them for thousands of miles and
many years at sea before landing on beach. The currents
in the Gulf of Mexico bring many species of these beans
to Galveston area beaches at about the same time as the
sargassum (commonly known as seaweed) arrives.
The sargassum corrals the beans at sea and they both
float in together. The sea beans do not originate from the
sargassum, but the best place to find them on the beach
is within these washed up beds. Avid beachcombers love
it when the seagrass arrives. The typical sargassum season
for Galveston is May through September.
Check the new sargassum as well as the older dried out
seagrass closer to the dunes. Often the beans have been
buried in the thick grass and when it dries out hidden
beans show up. After a good rain is the perfect time to look
for them because the wet beans are shinier and contrast
with the dull seagrass.
The beans come from all over the world, which is what
makes them so fun to find, and the most common sea bean
finds to Galveston fall within four categories. The heart
shaped Entada gigas, appropriately dubbed Sea Hearts,
are from a Monkey Ladder vine native to Costa Rica.
Hamburger beans, which come from several species of
Mucuna native to the West Indies, are flatter and circular
and feature striations of beige and brown that resemble a
hamburger patty between two buns.
Sea Coconuts, or Manicaria saccifera, are from Central
and South America and are perfectly spherical which
makes them look like miniature coconuts. Mary’s Beans
(Merremia discodesperma) grow in Mexico, Central
America, and the Caribbean basin; the seeds appear to
have the image of a cross impressed upon them.
Other, rarer beans are highly sought-after and include
Little Marbles, also known as Oxy’s (Oxyrhynchus volubilis),
and two specific species of Hamburger beans: The Mucuna
holtonii nearly black in color, much darker than the more
common hamburger beans, and the Thick-Banded Mucuna
(Mucuna elliptica), which features an oblong shape as
opposed to circular. Locating one of these three makes for
a unique beachcombing endeavor.
Sea beans can be cleaned and polished then made
into beautiful jewelry or just displayed in a bowl as a
conversation piece. Once claimed, rinse them in cool water
and allow to dry completely. For easiest results, use a rock
tumbler to bring the beans to a brilliant sheen, or polish
them manually with fine-grit sandpaper.
Overall, Galveston shores boast between 30-40 species
of sea beans. For more information on sea beans
identification, SeaBean.com provides an excellent
reference, as does the book Sea Beans from the Tropics by
Ed Perry IV and John. V. Dennis, an invaluable resource for
The most advantageous recipe for sea glass is very coarse
sand and lots of broken glass in an area of rough water to
naturally agitate it and sand it down. However, Galveston
does have certain locations that produce nice pieces.
One area is the beach by Woody’s Bar along FM 3005 at
7 1/2 Mile Road, just after the Seawall ends. Back in the
1950s, a bar on the beach burned down, and in addition to
sea glass other fun finds from this area include Coke, Pepsi, and liquor bottles from the 50s and 60s.
Another premium location for sea glass is along the
beaches on the far eastern end of the island that run along
the mouth of the Houston Ship Channel, but in truth, the
possibility of finding sea glass is there for any Galveston
beach, thanks to a 150-year history of hurricanes that has
demolished homes and strewn an innumerable amount of
debris (including glass) out into the Gulf.
The most common colors to find are white, from clear
glass, as well as varying shades of green and brown. These
colors of course coincide with the colors of beer and wine
bottles that have been tossed out or left on the beach to
be washed out to sea. But they are by no means the only
colors to be found, and they can represent any facet of the
entire color spectrum.
Cobalt blue and turquoise can be found in small
quantities, but the rarest colors are orange, yellow, red,
and purple since few bottles were manufactured in those
colors. A nice frosted piece of glass in any of those colors
represents the most valuable of beachcombing bounty, but
besides color, any identifying marks on the glass that can
help tell the age of the bottle can also set it apart. The size
and anything that adds interest to the piece will add value
Sea glass can easily make its way into your home or your
wardrobe, as it is often used in the crafting of handmade
jewelry, or assembled like a mosaic into a work of art. It is
also beautiful all by itself and can be displayed simply in a
glass jar or vase.
A History of Mystery
Perhaps the most intriguing secret kept by the world’s
vast expanse of oceans is the number of souls whose fate
was ultimately determined by the mood of Mother Nature.
The history of man attempting to conquer the high seas is
nearly as old as man itself, and Galveston’s history records
a 19th century beach find that points not only to the infinite
cycle of lost at sea/found on shore, but also the chilling
mystery of those fated souls claimed by the deep blue.
On July 23, 1883, the Galveston Daily News printed
a notice sent in by a Mr. Theodore C. Becker. His
correspondence stated that the morning prior, he found a
soda water bottle floating in the water near the shoreline
by the Pagoda Bath House (where Murdoch’s is today).
Inside was a slip of paper which he sent to the newspaper
along with his letter. It read simply, “July 8, 1883—
Schooner Tilly, Gulf of Mexico—Wrecked off Pass Cavallo
bar in heavy southeast gale.”
It is unknown whether the desperate message saved
any lives, although it appears unlikely since news of the
death of the schooner’s captain did not ascertain the
circumstances that caused it. On December 28, 1883,
a local steamship captain testified that Captain Weeks
of the schooner Tilly had drowned in the Gulf when he
fell overboard twenty miles into the Gulf from Aransas
Pass. However, the particulars of his death were reported
The only clue that the sea left of his undoing was the
bottle’s message from six months prior which indicated
complications from rough waters.