Beachcomber Interview: Alan Rammer

glass fishing float with net

A trip to Hawaii in 1970 opened up a world of collecting and a community of lifelong friends for Alan Rammer. Today, Alan is a marine expert, author, speaker, and beachcomber who makes his home in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He loves sharing his vast knowledge of marine life and all things beach-related with groups around the globe, including his huge collection of glass fishing floats.

alan rammer marine beachcomber floats

Alan Rammer grew up in Stockton, a city in California’s Central Valley, and Salinas, on California’s Central Coast. Along the shore in Carmel and Pacific Grove, he, his father, and his brother would explore tidepools, collecting rocks, shells, and many other treasures. “From the time I was in fourth grade, I knew I would have a career focused around the sea and that teaching was my passion,” Alan says.

Glass bubbles

On a family trip to Kauai, Hawaii, in 1970, Alan and his brother asked the hotel concierge where they could find seashells, and she responded instead that they should look for the real treasure: glass bubbles. “The day after the storm had passed, we walked from the Waimea River where it emptied into the sea to the town of Kapaa,” Alan says. “We climbed up under the brush and lo and behold stacked up under the beach side vegetation were glass bubbles, as she had told us there would be.”

Alan and his brother proudly returned to show the concierge. With a big smile, she suggested they buy a copy of Beachcombing for Japanese Glass Fishing Floats by Amos Wood, which has become the bible of float collectors, first published in 1967. “I purchased a copy, and carried it with my glass floats aboard the plane back home,” says Alan.

Lifelong friendships

Soon after, Alan moved to Seattle, where he earned degrees in Shellfish Biology and Invertebrate Zoology from the University of Washington. During his first week there, he contacted Amos Wood to ask him to sign his copy of the book. “Little did I know what was about to happen and the world that was going to open to me. Amos signed my book, and we became fast friends,” says Alan. Amos introduced Alan to many glass float collectors and fellow beachcombers. “I practically lived at his house, and his wife always had meals for us as we talked about the many facets surrounding the hobby of collecting glass floats.”

books about glass floats

Amos and Alan worked together on organizing and publicizing a beachcomber fair in Seaside, Oregon, in 1979. “Amos was starting his newest book Beachcombing the Pacific, which would cover all sorts of beach treasures from Pacific Northwest Beaches, and he was also updating the glass float book,” explains Alan. “He asked me to help him with the Hawaii chapter in his new book because I had been there several times.”

At the event, Amos introduced Alan to Stu Farnsworth, another avid collector of sea treasures. “Little did I know that meeting the concierge on the island of Kauai was going to lead me to my best friend for life,” says Alan. “Stu and I have been attached at the hip for almost 41 years now.” Stu invited Alan to his house to see his collection of glass floats and meet his family, including his two young children. “Stu told me years later that he knew once the children were crawling all over me that we would be friends for life.”

In the early 1980s, Alan and five fellow beachcombers co-founded a new beachcombing fair closer to home in Washington. “With $3,000 and five people who believed in my dream, we had the first annual Ocean Shores Beachcombers Fair in 1985,” Alan says. Alan was event manager for the first five years. The show is still running today.

From 1986 to 1989, Amos Wood fought cancer. “As I was beginning to step away from managing the fair, Amos Wood was beginning his battle with cancer,” says Alan. “As he slowly slipped away, he passed his glass float contacts and notes to me to carry on.” Alan has worked to keep and build on Amos’s network of float collectors.

“While I love my glass floats, I love the people and their stories even more,” says Alan. “I love all things beachy. I have traveled the world to explore new beaches and meet new faces...I never tire of exploring wrack lines and tide pools even though I am almost 69.”

In the 2000s, Alan and Stu wrote two editions of a price guide for glass floats, Glass Fishing Floats of the World, all of which sold out very quickly. “Stu and I correspond with people all over the world about glass floats,” says Alan. 
“I still maintain many of the contacts Amos Wood shared with me in 1989 and feel he would be proud of what I have done.”

japanese fishing floats

Alan’s collection is comprised of found floats, purchased floats, and traded floats. He emails and writes regularly to people all over the world to trade and purchase floats. His own collection is mainly from Pacific Rim countries.

Finding floats

According to Alan, there’s no magical time to find glass floats. It depends on a lot of factors. There are two major signs, however, in the Pacific Northwest, that may indicate glass floats may float on shore. “When someone sees long-range items with algae and goose-neck barnacles, this is a great indication that glass floats may not be far behind,” explains Alan. He says lighter items will come in first (lightbulbs, empty water bottles, and large glass floats). “With each of the ensuing tides, you will find the heavier and low-riding items (wood, plastic floats, and the smaller glass floats),” explains Alan.

japanese fishing float glass ball collectors 

Velella, or by-the-wind-sailor jellyfish, are excellent harbingers of good beachcombing. If you see them washing onto the beach in the Pacific Northwest, wade into the water and you may find one or even two glass floats. And don’t worry, though these guys are related to the deadly Portuguese Man-o-war, their stinging cells are very weak. “I encourage people to wade right in because the glass floats will settle in if it becomes deep enough,” encourages Alan. “I have people warn me I will be stung to death when they see me shuffling through it in my boots—until I pull a glass float or two out of my pocket and they quickly park their cars and jump right in next to me!”

In 2004, Jim Lynch published the book The Highest Tide after shadowing Alan on the job for a year. “Many of the events in the book happened to me in real life,” Alan says. It is now being adapted by director Fisher Stevens as a film.

glass balls used for fishing in japan

colorful glass balls from japan

asian glass ball floats

1. Rolling pin floats used for octopus fishing. 2. Sausage floats. 3. Much-coveted “blue dot” floats. 4. Hokuyo Glass Company glass floats, with the “FF” symbol on their sealing buttons, made as gifts for the departing troops of Occupied Japan after World War II, but not used for fishing. 5. Colorful herring fishery floats. 6. Rare cobalt blue float made by the Ocean Fishing Company, one of the largest fishing companies before World War II. It is one of the most desirable glass floats to come from Japan. 7. Crudely made pumpkin float, believed to be from North Korea or Japan. 8. A cobalt blue rolling pin float, found in Northern California near Eureka in the late 1930s. 9. Glass float blue swirl color anomaly. Photos courtesy of Alan Rammer.

Alan’s best days of finding floats were one day when he and two friends found 36 floats, and one day where he found 12 by himself. “I have found several hundred since that day in Kauai in 1970, almost 50 years ago!” Alan exclaims. “My collection from around the world is about 400.”

An active and engaged retirement

Alan retired in 2009 after 36 years as the Marine Community Outreach and Environmental Educator with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He now heads Tidepool Discoveries, doing marine education with schools and private groups. Alan still loves beachcombing on Washington’s remote outer coast beaches, as well as along the shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico, because so much comes from the Caribbean countries, South America, and the west coast of Africa. “I have traveled all over the world to explore new beaches. I have not been to Antarctica and Africa—yet.” He is very active in the Northwest Aquatic Marine Educators Association, which serves Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, serving as president twice. In 2012, Alan was the third Washingtonian to be named National Marine Science Educator of the Year.

“I am intrigued and enthralled by everything that washes ashore and the story it might tell me. Glass fishing floats are #1, but I look for agates, fossils, pieces of shipwrecks, messages in bottles, pieces of rocks from plate tectonics, feathers, sea beans, and bones as well,” Alan says. “I like running into other collectors to see what it is they collect. People are one of the main reasons I love this hobby.” Alan displays his finds in glass cases in his “float room” and throughout his home. In addition to his floats, he has squid fossils from Northern Ireland (“Yes, squid make fossils,” he laughs.), coins, rocks, and more.

One item on Alan’s bucket list is a 20-dollar gold coin from a ship wreck that happened in 1896 not far from where Alan lives. “The ship was on its way to the Alaska Gold Rush with payroll and passengers, but it never arrived in Alaska,” Alan tells. “In 1988, while leading school children on a field trip, we started finding 1896-S silver dollars lying in the sand at the base of the sand dunes. Over five years, we found 133 of them! That is when I found out this ship was also carrying 20-dollar gold coins. None have been found to date.”

glass fishing float from japan found on beach

Among Alan’s favorite finds are a 46-inch glass float and, surprisingly, a bale of marijuana he found one time on a Gulf Coast beach. “Some of my biggest discoveries surpassed my wildest dreams, and I had no clue what they were—such as the great amberjack tag I found on a Gulf Coast beach in 2011 and received a reward of $500 from the University of Florida!” Alan exclaims. He has also found 13 messages in bottles and still corresponds with some of the senders.

Alan has many fun beachcombing stories from his 36 years teaching marine science. “One of my favorites was finding squid egg cases at the edge of the shoreline with a group of first graders. We could see the baby squid blinking their eyes. I hurriedly drove to the store to get a package of Dixie cups and we placed one egg in each cup,” explains Alan. “As the children sat at picnic tables with their cup and one egg, the baby squids began to emerge. I knew there were multiple babies per egg, but what I did not plan on was the children wanting to name their babies as they released them so guess what we did all day? We sat at the picnic tables, and as the baby squid hatched, each was named and gently returned to the sea.”

Value of glass floats

Alan says that many factors influence the value of a glass float. “Many people believe a big glass float translates into a big price tag. Nothing could be further from the truth,” explains Alan. “It is all about size, shape, color, and markings.” Some markings are very rare and extremely hard to find. “Collectors will pay very high prices for an orange size colored TO in a diamond float or a rolling pin shaped float with kanji characters down the side. Some of the kanji-marked rolling pin floats will go for hundreds of dollars if not thousands.” Three of the rarest and most expensive Japanese glass fishing floats ever sold came from the Central Washington coast.

Alan does free appraisals for people with floats to help them learn about the value of their collections and in order to insure them. “any of the glass floats tell quite a story based on the characters written on them, their size and how much marine life is growing on them,” says Alan. “I have found about 250-300 floats over almost 50 years of wandering our beaches, ranging from as small a golf ball up to 46 inches in circumference. They come as large as 57-60 inches in circumference (referred to as marker floats), but those are rarely found on Washington beaches.

Visiting the Washington Coast

In addition to beachcombing, Alan also enjoys gardening, bird watching, volunteering, and playing board games with friends and family. “If visiting my neck of the woods, please visit the Westport-South Beach Historical Society Museum, the Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores and the Museum of the North Beaches in Moclips,” Alan recommends.

And, don’t miss the beaches and the chance to find a float of your own. “Sometimes the biggest thrill is to just wander and see what nature has in store for you.”

various sizes of japanese and korean fishing float glass balls

Alan Rammer’s Top 5 Beachcombing Tips

  1. Never turn your back on the ocean. Freak waves can happen at any time!
  2. Always glance behind you as you beachcomb as treasures can wash in behind you.
  3. Glance side to side as you walk, never in a straight line. Take advantage of the lighting at different times of the day.
  4. Think smaller when hunting. If you think only large items, you will miss the smaller finds.
  5. Several days of winds are best for long-range jetsam and flotsam to come ashore. Watch for items covered in barnacles and the by-the-wind sailors (Velella) as harbingers of good stuff coming in.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.

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