Sea Glass Primer

By Elaine Shea

sea and beach glass

I recently discovered the sheer joy of searching for sea glass while I was visiting family on Boston’s North Shore. As a New England native, beachcombing had long been a favorite pastime, and I often found sea shells, sand dollars, and quirky driftwood. Since I moved to Montana many moons ago, I hadn’t experienced the pleasure of spending time on many beaches and found this new hobby addictive.

For starters, the amazing thing about sea glass is that tides wash something new in every 11 hours or so. Sea glass lovers should hit the beach at low tide to increase their chances of finding frosted, tinted glass—honey amber, cobalt, aqua, sea foam green, orange, pink, cola shades, clear and maybe, if lucky, cherry red. Typical beachcombing posture is eyes peeled, low-peering in hotspots like tide pools and dried seaweed and especially in the pebbled, rocky areas where glass collects, almost buried, waiting to attract pesky bugs, seagulls, and humans.

To find the best sea glass and beach glass, you have to search online, listen to friends, and devote a lot of your time. Surprisingly, long flat beaches may not turn up much glass, while small inlets can be natural catch-all havens. Old glass dumps located by water turn up gorgeous finds. Some collectors understandably do not share their favorite haunts, fearing crowds will soon trample and over-visit the area.

searching for sea glass beach pottery

Once you find a place to search, plan your route and excursion and consult the local tide chart to organize your day. Start early and possibly repeat the process at ebb tide to increase your chances of awesome finds. Spend at least a couple hours: vary routines to stay alert, and allow for toe splashes, conversation, and dog petting. Glass size doesn’t matter; each nugget has value, though I suspect die-hard collectors and artists may covet larger pieces or particular colors to work with, sell or display. Train your eyes to capture both large and small treasures—overturned chunky glass may not be in your lens if you are searching for dewdrops. Retrace your path to find what you didn’t see initially.

Even though no commercial equipment is necessarily needed, the hunt for sea glass or beach glass is still hard work. Prepare a ready toolkit to tuck in a backpack or a fanny pack. Add a hat or scarf to keep cool, sunscreen, lip gloss, and sunglasses (although it can be much easier to spot glass nuggets without dark glasses). If drizzly, pack rain gear and fingerless gloves. Wear flexible shoes or rubber sandals to allow ease and ankle flex. Stock up on band-aids, as your feet might get beat up and sand chafed. Because the body must constantly bend and weave sideways to check and retrieve treasures, stretching is highly recommended for all ages. If you are in an area that does not see many people, watch for mosquito nests and nasty water bugs. Make certain you are out of secluded coves before high tide revisits unless you want to swim part of your route back home. After rough storms, it’s the perfect time to capture treasures that the wild waves have swept onto shore.

Expect to find more than one piece when reaching low to scoop up what you initially thought was one single glint. Sea glass jewels are quite beautiful to study. Rinse afterwards and towel them dry to remove gritty sand, and then arrange them in a clear container. Their tints and unique wavy shapes are remarkable, and those who gaze can ponder mystical glass back from the seafaring days of enchanted mermaids and nixies.

mermaid tears sea glass collection

I used to stuff glass and stones in my pockets, but they often slipped out when I bent over, so I now wear a slim cross-body bag to safeguard all that the water gives. Sometimes, I give back—I lost my dad’s sunglasses to gigantic waves by Phi Phi Island—but I think it was an even trade. If the glass is not buffed enough by surf and sand or squally lake waves or if it feels sharp, pitch it back in the water. It needs more time to feel smooth against your thumb and middle finger. Tossing glass back may also bring gulls and birds your way; they figure it’s a treat and quickly dive by.

Beaches and deep lakes often provide more shells and pretty rocks than sea glass; however, glass and a variety of curios routinely wash ashore on bays, inlets, spits, and islands. Sea glass beaches offer a natural repository and continuous erosion, spilling in and out. Where I walk in Swampscott, polished pottery shards and broken bits of fine china turn up. I learned these were lost to the sea 40 years ago when a local hotel burned and everything fell into the ocean. I appreciate finding a single flower pressed in indigo glaze or a pottery date stamp to identify time and place. Some of the favorite oddities I’ve gathered are antique marbles, decorated tiles, and a single ball of string unraveling in sand.

A search for glass affords time and space for surprise and wonder; gazing at ships, sailboats, lobstermen, snail beds, stories buried in sand, lost flip-flops, and distant horizons. I enjoy returning from the beach admiring my glass in the reddening glow of the sunset sun. Beach wandering is pleasurable even on nippy winter days. When a day ends and the tide is about to shift, I get a satisfying feeling and a sense of the wholeness as I rub the grainy patina of the few pieces left in my pockets.

If you are lucky enough to live by or visit salt water or a deep fresh water lake, embrace water as your playground, but stay respectful and do not interfere with nature. The amount of trash scattered on beaches is awful, so try to pick it up whenever you can!

I beach walk on vacation knowing I’ll return. Traveling back to the mountains, I magically find the right container where I can admire the shapes and colors of my finds, until they are joined by other sea travelers. Whenever I come back from the coast to my home in the mountains, I can’t help but think of the next time. In the twilight of my consciousness, dazzling coins sparkle just below the surface of the water. I reach out to them and dream of my next sea glass adventure.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2021 issue.

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