Beach Combing

One Man's Trash Is Another Man's Treasure

By Kimber Fountain & Katherine Pollock
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When scouring the shoreline for treasures, beachcombers are never limited to shells or naturally occurring baubles. Some beachcombers even have a specialty and with their finds create expansive, intriguing collections. These include novelties like Legos and even Nike sneakers, as well at not-so-collectible finds like illegal narcotics and wild animals. Another specific category that is comprised of special finds for any beach hunter is marine tracking devices. Several different kinds of these devices exist, but they are all used to track data for ocean currents or endangered marine species, and often the beachcomber is a key component to completing the course for these studies.

Placeholder imageBeach Trash Bingo

One niche of beachcombing arises from the geographical proximity of Galveston to the maritime and oil and gas industries, and miscellaneous industrial paraphernalia is a common find along our beaches. Some of it is relatively modern, but other finds have dated back more than a century.

Island resident Donna Romeyn found a life vest from the Hercules 350 oil platform, and another resident discovered a distress light most likely used on a smaller fishing boat. It has a rope on one end and a mercury switch that is activated when the light is overturned, powering a strobe light that serves as a distress signal and locating device.

The most historic of man-made finds are often also of the maritime persuasion, as is the case with an aluminum buoy found by Roxanne Bentsen, whose frequent visits to the Island eventually persuaded her to relocate permanently.

The metal float was manufactured in La Coruna, Spain, in 1901, but was most likely used in the Portuguese fishing industry. The lighthouse depicted on the top of the float is the Tower of Hercules, built B.C. and lauded as the oldest lighthouse in the world.

Drift Cards

Drift cards are the most common tracking device found on the beach. They are typically made of plywood, measure three by five inches, and are painted a bright color so they can be easily spotted on the beach. Sometimes, instructions are printed on them in multiple languages.

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The drift card featured in the photograph was used by Texas A & M University-Galveston to track ocean currents in order to better understand the path that an oil spill would take if it occurred in the water. British Petroleum (BP) sponsored the drift cards project, and thousands of them were dropped in locations with the hopes that wherever they end up, a person will find it and report the location.

Each card is numbered and the location it was dropped was initially recorded. Upon locating the card, often it is hard to tell how long the card took to make the journey, but the origination information will more than likely be visible.

If you find a drift card, be sure to report it. The more cards that can be reported the better the data base of information will be.


Mike Ley of Colorado is a regular visitor to Texas and beachcombs all along the Gulf Coast. He found one of the MicroStar Drifters at San Jose Island, in between Rockport and Matagorda, known locally as St. Joe’s Island.

The MicroStar Drifter buoy resembles a crab pot marker, but it is much more sophisticated. Crab pot markers are round Styrofoam buoys that are a common beach find. They detach from the crab pot and can drift for years as trash.

The drifter that Mike found was missing the drogue, an underwater sail attached to the buoy at release, but the photo of this particular MicroStar is helpful for beachcombers in identifying the object and setting it apart from a crab pot.

Mike was able to clean up the buoy, which allowed him to find the serial number and an address. Easily spotted return information is always a good sign that the marine tracking device has important data.

To report the find, Mike contacted Mexican CICESE (Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada; English: The Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education at Ensenada.) He later received an email from an employee of the Marine Science Institute who explained the purpose of the MicroStar Drifter buoy.

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“These buoys are part of a dispersion experiment carried out in the western Gulf of Mexico in collaboration with Mexican (CICESE) and US institutions (Texas A&M and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), to evaluate how a patch of a tracer spreads in order to get the physics right when it comes to modelling spills of various pollutants, as well as connectivity of marine populations via larval dispersal (the latter is of interest for fishery management), among other things.”

Placeholder imageOnce Mike reported the serial number of the device, the data of its journey in the Gulf was able to be traced. This buoy had been on an 8-month journey from the drop site. A photo shows the path the buoy took. Mike was offered a reward for returning the buoy, which he accepted, although the true reward is the thrill that comes from assisting oceanographers track useful data that can help protect the Gulf of Mexico.

Stokes Drifter

A Stokes Drifter marine tracker was recently found on Crystal Beach, located on Bolivar Peninsula just east of Galveston. The disc-shaped tracker measures about six inches across and is named for the Stokes drift, the movement of ocean currents on the surface.

The Stokes Drifter tracker was developed by a Florida State University researcher to trace the oceans’ currents and surface circulation. Surface currents are tricky to track because wind can play a major role on the trajectory of items on the surface and skew the data. This particular drifter was made so that it does not drift too high in the water, allowing it to be moved by the currents rather than the wind.

The Stokes drifters will transmit time, position, temperature, salinity, and acidity via satellite at regular intervals if they choose to track that data. Like the other marine trackers, this type is also used to track oil spills, or it can track plastic pollution patches or contaminated plumes to better understand how it travels across the Gulf of Mexico. Kate Newberry, the finder of the device, was able to keep this one and her name will be added to the website as the person who called it in.

Going Green

Early one morning, local resident Lora Leigh was beachcombing with a friend on Bolivar Peninsula, just beyond Crystal Beach. At first, she did not pay much attention to a large bundle, tightly wrapped in a black trash bag, until her friend’s curiosity (and fondness for whodunit crime shows) speculated that perhaps it was a body.

“I cut it open, and at first I thought it was just cut grass, you know, because sometimes people will just throw stuff anywhere,” Leigh says. “Then came an aroma that I was familiar with.” They called 911, and a Galveston County Sherriff was dispatched to the scene to retrieve the contraband. “I asked them, ‘do people find [drugs] often?’” she says. “They said yes, but that it was usually cocaine.”

Placeholder imageThis discovery was the first of its kind for Leigh, whose rare finds typically include whole sand dollars, rare purple and yellow sea glass, and fossilized bones, one of which was even dated to be from the Ice Age. It was also the first of two discoveries that she would not take home to add to her collection.

About a year after her marijuana find, Leigh was walking on the beach and saw something moving ahead in the distance. After a few more steps and closer examination, she realized to her horror that the large creature slithering through the sand was in fact a seven-foot long alligator, who had most likely made its way down some estuaries from Anahuac in search of food.

Fortunately for her, the encounter was brief and ultimately uneventful. “I screamed, but then I ran towards the beach and the alligator ran toward the dunes, and thankfully I didn’t see it again.”

Turtle Trackers

Five different species of sea turtles make their home in the Gulf of Mexico, and all of them have the potential of either washing up on a Galveston beach or choosing the Island as their nesting grounds. Adult turtles can become ill or injured, usually through some sort of interaction with humans by way of boats, plastic and fishing lines or nets.

If anything impedes their natural ability to dive deeply and swim against the currents, they will eventually succumb to the tide and end up on the shore. Although not endangered, sea turtles are protected by law and they must be reported.

Sea turtles also come to shore of their own volition in order to lay eggs, although they return to the water immediately after. The nests are left behind to be attended to by nature and in Galveston’s case, the Turtle Island Restoration Network led by Program Director Joanie Steinhaus.

“About 42 to 46 percent of [turtles and nests] are found by visitors to the beach,” Steinhaus says, while the additional discoveries are made by “turtle patrols.”

From April 1 to July 15, volunteer crews walk organized routes along the beaches looking for signs of turtles. “What you mainly want to look for is a disturbance in the dunes,” she says. Although the eggs themselves will be completely buried by sand, the turtle moves around in a circle as she lays the eggs, which creates a distinct pattern, as do the tracks they leave behind as they make their way from the water to the dunes.

A certification is required to handle the turtles and their eggs, so if discovered do not touch or disturb them and immediately call 1-866-TURTLE-5.