What Lies Beneath: Diving for Treasure

By JJ Caldwell

pat caldwell bodysurfing

Magic. My husband texed me at four o’clock telling me to go to my favorite honey hole on my way home from work. I was tired. It was a long day, I didn’t really want to. He persisted. I went. As I pulled up to the beach, the water did look inviting. I grabbed my mask and surf fins and jumped straight in. I ended up at a different spot than I normally go, and unexpectedly I was launched into the most magical dive of my life. The debris was expansive, never ending, filled with rocks, coral, broken shells, animal-free whole shells, and, of course, sea glass.

sea glass and shells from hawaii found by jj and pat caldwell

I waded in the shore break, hunting. My husband, Pat, was already out. The waves surge back and forth, mounds of debris below the impact zone, where I wanted to be. They collect the ocean’s bounty in a tight pile, then the next wave crashes into them, sending them flying out into a wide field of treasures. I’m an odd duck, keeping myself hands-free by placing the pieces I find in my swimsuit. This evening, I really could not grab fast enough.

jj and pat caldwell with their friends on the beach

I emptied my swimsuit at least five times before merrily running back into the surf with my fins and mask still on. The pieces of glass were large, predominantly aquas and whites, pieces of broken bottles, beaten and churned into a glistening diamond surface. The water was crystal clear, it felt like I was flying. A rainbow popped up as the sun went down, rays of red and orange shooting across the sky, the perfect end to the fairy tale I had just lived out. Like I said: magic.

beachcomber chris ann underwater hawaii

I’ve been sea glass diving for only a handful of years now, but my friend Chris Ann has been doing it since she could walk out to the shoreline. Her father thoroughly enjoyed hunting for old bottles, empty shells, and marbles, to the point that it became a family past time to search the waves, looking for goodies and to surf. As she grew up, Chris Ann fell more and more in love with the ocean, eventually becoming so proficient at bodyboarding as to become one of the first female professionals at the sport. With her brother, Danny Kim, also competing, she was pushed into bigger waves and became extremely competent in the ocean.

On small days, she would find joy in discovering the world underneath the waves. She found her first sea glass marble at the age of 22. Her dad would always get such a kick at seeing what treasures she could find. But just as he had taught her, she often helps others know the risks and tips of how to discover their own glass and sea marbles, even going so far as to offer them whatever she had found that day.

I met her at age 14. She had heard about this girl wanting to learn to bodyboard. She found me, took me under her wing and to this day her lessons are always in my head of how to be safe and smart in the water. We dive together frequently, and anytime she finds something special, she brings up her father. She’ll mention that he found one that looked just like this, or at least something similar. He’s not around anymore, but she still feels a connection to him through diving for treasures.

shawnee beachcomber underwater

Another friend of mine, Shawnee, is also a part of the first group of professional female bodyboarders. She is a very proficient water woman who started in her teenage years. During the flat spells, she started to get curious about what was underneath the waves. She put on a mask and fins and started to dive in her early twenties. She found it to be very therapeutic and meditative. 

Shawnee has a mantra that runs through her head while she’s diving. It’s usually based on the items she’s hoping to find that day: a certain color of sea glass or a certain type of empty shell. “Your mind gets clear and a sharp focus comes over you,” she says. “All you feel is the water, the currents and what you see underneath the waves.”

underwater beachcombing finds from hawaii

One of her favorite memories was on a day that she had been diving for over three hours. Her husband was walking on the beach. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of yellow-orange color. She swam as fast as she could and reached out to grab whatever it was, just as a wave ripped her in the opposite direction, and just barely was she able to grab it. She popped up above the surface to see what she had found: an empty sunrise shell—her first one! She screamed in excitement, causing her husband to freak out, wondering if they were screams of terror or screams of joy. She still gets a kick out of the look he had on his face.

And who could blame him? Predominantly, sea glass and shell hunting is done on the sand and rocks. However, sea combers in Hawai’i need to dive for the best pieces. This is a very dangerous hobby, to put it lightly. This style of sea combing puts you at the mercy of the water and your skills at navigating the currents, reading the waves. I’ve personally been injured quite a few times. 

underwater beachcomber debbie

My friend Debbie has seen the effects of these dangers first hand. She has been a lifeguard in Hawai’i for years now, a rare but respected occupation for women out here. She’s also been surfing since she was a teenager and grew up sailing with her dad in the Hawaiian waters. She reminds people often of the signs posted throughout beaches in Hawaii, which state “when in doubt, don’t go out.” Debbie will be the first one to tell you that this is advice you should follow. It can seriously save your life.

Many people drown annually in Hawaii. Debbie says one of the first lessons is too recognize your swimming abilities and use common sense. A lot of the time you can show up at a beach and it looks like it’s free of surf, but then when you get into the water, sets of waves start rolling in. You need to take some time when you arrive at the beach to watch the water and ask lifeguards where the safest place to go in is. Make sure that you have an easy way to get out of the ocean, too. Use surfing fins for added safety, even if the surf is very small. 

beachcombing finds from jj and pat caldwell

It is also very important to know that the debris, shells, and glass, are usually located in surf zones. Be prepared to be tumbled around quite a bit. If you don’t mind the occasional cuts, scrapes, or seasickness, then you may just have what it takes to find some treasures of your own.

beach with jj and pat caldwell

Even with all of its hazards, I find this type of sea glass and shell hunting to be my favorite style. Being a part of the water and the challenge of finding debris with in the piles. It brings about a serenity and excitement that’s hard to put into words. I talk to the fishes while I’m down there, I get to say hi to turtles, my husband and I hold hands many times while we’re diving under the waves or swimming along the debris line. And the companionship and camaraderie of fellow diving friends creates an amazing time spent at the beach. Plus, you burn a lot of calories. But who’s counting that. Happy hunting.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2019 issue.

Learn more about safely diving for sea glass and empty seashells in a short video from JJ and Pat Caldwell.

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