Searching in Sanibel

By Kimberly Jennings

sea shell beach in sanibel

If I could have been a beachcombing major in college, I would have. I can only imagine the look on my salary-driven father’s face if I presented that plan. Actually, what I should have done is major in psychology with a focus on beachcombers. I’m not sure my dad would have been excited about this plan either, but I’m certain this is an untapped market for future psychologists.

I have always been drawn to the beach. Growing up on Long Island, I suppose it was inevitable. Ironically, I also have a fear—okay, a phobia—of deep water. That’s a whole other psychological focus, but I digress. Over the course of my 51 years, my relationship with the beach has taken different forms, and in the past ten or so years, it has morphed into a passion. It is my escape, my solace, my happy place, and collecting its treasures has become my obsession. Cue psychologists everywhere.

I know that I am not alone in my pursuit of shells, sea glass, rocks, and other flotsam. After all, I subscribe to Beachcombing magazine and belong to the Beachcombing Club. But, it wasn’t until this past week that this inclination registered as a form of neurosis. What prompted this epiphany? A solo trip to Sanibel Island, Florida.

A week ago, I ended my 24-year teaching career (!!), and next week, I will be embarking on a new path in the Admissions department of my school. Just prior to this, my lovely father (yes, the salary-driven one) passed away as I looked on from his bedside. Needless to say, life has been A LOT lately. This brief reprieve between jobs seemed like a good opportunity to take some time out for me. Generally, I travel with my husband and our two boys, now 17 and 19, but I wanted to do some serious beachcombing, and I knew that they would not be on board with or have the stamina for this plan. My husband, no stranger to a golf getaway trip, encouraged me to go for it and spend time doing what I love in the beachcombing mecca of the U.S.

Sanibel has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I bit the bullet and ventured south on my own. Between Sanibel, Captiva, and the 10,000 Islands off the coast of Marco Island, I spent three full days on beaches from sunrise to sunset. Here’s what I discovered. For many people, beachcombing isn’t just a hobby; it’s a way of life. It’s a fascination, a sport—sometimes even a contact sport—an obsession, a preoccupation, a compulsion. I would venture to say that more psychology jargon could be applied to beachcombing than many other pursuits.

seashell collectors on the beach in Sanibel

Upon my arrival in Fort Myers, torrents of rain began to fall, accompanied by booming thunder and sky-cracking lightning. While most would have been unhappy about their Florida vacation starting with a monsoon, I was thinking like a beachcomber. Yippee, this storm should toss up some great stuff! (Apparently, according to the locals, more wind was required for this to be true.) After surviving a harrowing trip to the hotel in my bare-bones rental car, I stood ankle-deep in water to retrieve my bags from the trunk. Naturally, I had not thought to pack an umbrella—I was going to the Sunshine State for heaven’s sake! Once settled and dry, I sat with my beach maps and made a plan. I decided that I would hit the beach by 5:30 am. This way, I could see the sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico and beat other like-minded people to the hunt. Make no mistake, we beachcombers are a competitive lot.

Bleary-eyed but excited and a little trepidatious, I made my way to the dark shoreline. My fear of being alone on this sunless and unknown beach was replaced by serious FOMO—fear of missing out! Not one, not two, but MANY people had the exact same plan. There they were, in full beachcombing regalia, with heads down and turtle-friendly flashlights casting a warm glow on the ground beneath their feet. Their mesh bags were already weighed down with shells. Clearly, I was in a new league, and I began to panic. Had I missed all of the good stuff? Would there be any special finds left for me?

I wish I was using the word “panic” lightly, but that would be untrue. I mentioned neurosis, didn’t I? And, I said that beachcombers are competitive, right? I am certainly not the first, nor the last, beachcomber to become upset, dare I say angry, at the thought of missing out. While I personally do not wish anyone bodily harm, my inner demons scowl and silently pray that all rogue treasure seekers hit the road.

millions of shells on the beach in florida

I don’t use my earbuds when I’m on the beach. I prefer to listen to the sounds of nature, especially the ebb and flow of the tide. Whether the water is like glass or the waves are crashing, I am drawn inward. If I stand a chance of quieting the noise in my head, it is at the beach. In the same vein, I also do not typically interact with others while I am there. So, when an agitated comrade told me with hostility in his voice to “stop walking on the shells,” I heard him loud and clear. I stared at his man, mouth open but speechless. Naturally, I only thought of good responses after he walked away. (“So sorry, I forgot my jetpack today,” or “My hoverboard broke,” or “Are you nuts?!?”) I mean this was Sanibel Island, the shell capital of the world. He might as well have told me not to get sand on my feet!

Shaking it off—this person wasn’t going to ruin my day—I pressed on, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t walk a bit more gingerly for a little while. Fortunately, I was able to slip back into my reflective state of mind which is when this notion of beachcombing psychology took hold. What is it that draws all of us to this unpredictable pursuit? I mean, scary though it is, I must have something in common with “stop-walking-on-the-shells” guy. So, who are beachcombers, and what makes us tick?

In addition to being competitive (I must find the coveted junonia before someone else does), beachcombers are curious (What the heck is this thing I’ve found? Where did it come from? How long has it been on this earth? What has its journey been like?). We are determined (just a little farther) and we are overachievers (more, more, more!). Beachcombers have a never-give-up attitude. (Rain, extreme heat, bugs, blisters, we persevere.)

I believe that the majority of beachcombers, especially the Florida variety, are comfortable in their skin. For so many of us, combing is a solitary pursuit. Try as we might, it is not always easy to smile and cheer as a friend finds the sand dollar or alphabet cone we were in search of. If you’re like me with preternatural stick-to-it-iveness, beachcombing can place you squarely in your own head for hours upon hours. Beyond that, Florida hobbyists come to play! Sun shirts, snorkels, buckets, nets, scoopers, fanny packs, tissues, coolers, wetsuits, backpacks, shell bags, plastic containers, bug spray, UV lights, sun hats, water shoes, shell guides, sunscreen, cameras, and on and on. You’d have to be really confident to show up on a New York beach dressed to the nines in your beachcombing gear. I get sideways glances when I zigzag the Fire Island shoreline with my cross-body mesh bag!

framed sea shells in shadow boxes

Perhaps, more than anything, beachcombers are walking contradictions. They see beauty everywhere, even in the teeniest, tiniest of finds, and they are creative thinkers. So many beachcombers envision new life and purposes for their finds—catch-all clams, sea glass jewelry, shell art. After all, most of us double as crafters. While many have trouble saying no, at some point in our journeys most morph into perfectionists, tossing back shells that are even slightly broken or sea glass that hasn’t quite cooked enough.

We tend to be a peaceful bunch, appreciating the meditative quality of our hobby, but we can also be aggressive (See angry “stop-walking-on-the-shells” guy). I kid you not, one person nearly took me down as they stepped in front of me to snatch up the sand dollar I was calmly approaching. It can be argued that beachcombers are goal-oriented, often to the point of tunnel vision (seriously, we hardly ever look up), yet we can also be scattered and easily sidetracked. (Ooh, I saw something shimmering over there…Wait, I have to check out the other wrack lines too…Did I miss something in that shell pile over there?)

I believe that as seekers, we are smart; our search for treasures is a quest for information about our natural world as well as a journey toward self-knowledge and understanding. Truth be told, we are also total fools. We see a dark spot in the water and, thinking it could be a huge conch, climb over a slippery, craggy, unsafe rock jetty to check it out. Even when we have reached the height of exhaustion and delirium from walking the beach for hours, we push on. Your phone is dead and it’s a long, long trek back to the car, but your next great find could be just ahead! Yup, fools.

seashells washing up in the waves on florida beach

What no doubt sounded like a crazy idea—majoring in beachcombing psychology—is starting to crystallize, isn’t it? I mean, you could easily branch off into a study of collectors of all sorts. Let’s be real, beachcombers (and in case it wasn’t clear, I include myself in this esteemed group) are borderline hoarders. I’d be shocked to meet a fellow enthusiast who doesn’t have WAY more shoreline treasures than they could possibly ever need. (Honestly, do we really need any?) Need, no. Want, yes. Want, want, want. I wonder too if beachcombers are looking to put some order into a chaotic world. Think of the mess that is a wrack line, the clutter and confusion of a shell pile, and the jumble of loot in a collector’s bag. I would argue that many beachcombers get as much of a charge out of cleaning, sorting, classifying, and displaying their treasures as they do finding them in the first place. Hoarders who like order could be yet another branch of psychological study!

As I strolled Florida’s southwest beaches, I found myself considering personality parallels, metaphors, deeper interpretations of the beachcombing obsession. Am I a “grass is always greener” person? Do I seek that which cannot be found? What am I really hoping to find, anyway? Do I have wants and needs that aren’t being filled? Are they fillable? Is it beach treasure I seek, or am I really looking for an escape? Perhaps I’m just in search of something beautiful, unique, and special.

pelican and seashells on florida beaches

Some of these are unanswerable questions, in spite of psychology’s best efforts. Did I mention that beachcombers might also carry unrealistic expectations and sometimes find themselves disappointed by a less than stellar haul? All-too-often, this is a fitting description for me—an overachiever, perfectionist, type-A person setting unattainable goals and beating myself up when I inevitably fail to meet them. Perhaps beachcombing is yet another exercise in futility? Boy, that sounds grim. Time to change the narrative (Can a leopard change its spots? What would the psychologists say?).

So, after my strange interaction with grumpy shell guy, I decided to walk differently on this trip. (Sorry to say, I still crunched some shells underfoot!) I continued to walk the magnificent Gulf Coast beaches for hours and hours, and I certainly took home some great finds. Only this time, my neck didn’t hurt quite as much as it usually does. Rather than only looking down, I looked up, I looked right, I looked left, and I stopped to look back. Sometimes I walked long stretches only looking within. I reminded myself to be kinder to my finds, to hold fast to some of the shards and shells that have been broken in one way or another by life. There is so much beauty in the journey that led to their flaws. There are, no doubt, a lot of psychological metaphors to be explored here! For those of us who partake, beachcombing feeds our souls in some way. There is beauty to be found everywhere. In Sanibel, I discovered that it’s less about figuring out where to look and more about recognizing it when you see it and accepting it as it is, barnacles and all.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2022 issue.

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1 comment

All so so true.. this me! Thank you for putting it right out there front and center!

Kathy Jund April 16, 2023

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