Beachcomber Interview: Leilani Yee

sea glass and sea marbles from hawaii

Coming from Pearl City, Hawaii, you’d think Leilani Yee would be an avid pearl collector. But the treasures she seeks can be even more elusive. Leilani searches the beaches—above and below the waves—for Hawaiian shells, sea glass, and glass floats to add to her collection of beachcombed treasures.

When Leilani was a young girl, her mother taught her how to freedive and collect shells from the sea floor. About seven years ago, she taught her own daughters how to freedive. Now, you can find them checking the swell, tide, and weather to choose the best beach to dive in the ocean. She and the girls use a mask, snorkel, and fins and have assembled a beautiful collection of shells, sea glass, and other items found underwater and on the beach.

leilani yee hawaiian sea glass collector

In addition to snorkeling for sea treasures, Leilani also beachcombs above water. “I enjoy going to secluded beaches and coastlines,” says Leilani. “I follow the garbage patch that the current brings ashore from the North Pacific gyre and hike miles up and down the coastline picking up trash along the shore. Sometimes I find treasure, like glass floats!”

Leilani likes to go to the beach a few times a week, but not always to look for treasure. “Sometimes it’s just to jump in the ocean after a long day at the office, to watch the sunset with my husband, or to walk my German
Shepherd, Kalea,” she says. Her favorite times are peaceful mornings at sunrise and relaxing evenings at sunset.

While her home beaches of Hawaii have added many beautiful pieces to her collection, she treasures the things she’s found when traveling. “I’ve beachcombed at Fort Bragg and San Francisco and found beautiful abalone shells, sea glass,
and sand dollars!”

sea glass collection of leilani yee hawaii

Leilani’s collection is a constant source of inspiration for her creativity. She creates and photographs art, decorates picture frames, and she makes magnets, keychains, and jewelry to give as gifts. 

Leilani has so many shells that she often returns them to the beach. “I take any excess shells and place them in tide pools for hermit crabs,” she says.

Hawaiian beaches can also be homes to wildlife larger than  hermit crabs. “While walking peacefully along a rocky shoreline, one of the rocks next to me rolled over and grunted,” says Leilani. “It was an endangered Hawaiian monk seal! I was so startled I yelped and sprained my calf muscle trying to get away from it!”

Leilani organizes and displays her treasures in glass vases, mason jars, ceramic and wood trays, and abalone shells. “My family and friends are pretty much in awe of my collection,” she says. “I overheard my cousin say ‘Well at least it’s a good addiction!’”

Some of Leilani’s favorite finds of all time include a well frosted, fully intact sea glass smoking pipe, her first Hokkaido rolling pin glass float, and a brown sea glass egg. But, of course, she still has a few special items on her bucket list.

“I would love to find a glass float in a rare color like red, cobalt, or purple!” Visiting the Hokkaido region of Japan to beachcomb for beautiful glass floats and smooth sea glass is high on her travel list. 

beachcomber leilani yee

When Leilani isn’t at the beach, she loves hiking, running, yoga, and spending quality time with her husband, Brian, and their two daughters, Kawena and Naia. She also works as an agent providing auto, home, and life insurance plans for the people of Hawaii.

What she loves about beachcombing is the community she has found through sharing her photos on Instagram @_leilani. “I have become friends with beachcombers from around the world who inspire me to get active, creative, and to be a better steward of the ocean. I love the beachcombing community!”

hawaiian shells and sea glass art

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2019 issue.

No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.

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