Part 1 - Beach Combing

Secrets of the Sea

By Kimber Fountain & Katherine Pollock
Beach Combing 

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.


Placeholder imageSharks 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 millions—of years.

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.

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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 perspective.

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.

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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.

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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, 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 any beachcomber.


Easier to spot but no less valuable are the small, frosted pieces of glass found in the same areas as shark teeth, in the shell hash. To be considered real sea glass, the piece must be completely frosted, nearly opaque, and have no sharp or jagged edges. When a piece like this is located, rest assured it is quite old as it takes longer for sea glass to become conditioned on Galveston beaches because the sand is very fine.

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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.

Placeholder imageAnother 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 to it.

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 “unknown.”

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.