After a week in Barbados lounging on the beach, I took a walk and started collecting sea glass, some shells and a piece of coral. Shells and coral are pretty, but my main love is the sea glass. Growing up on the Atlantic Ocean in the North East, we didn’t see much and when we did they were prized little treasures. Barbados has a lot of sea glass, and I still get all excited when I see every piece.
This year I brought home a couple bags from hours spent walking the beach. One afternoon I was sitting around and looking for ways to use my sea glass, without the collection being stuck in a jar. It was then that I began to wonder, is it okay to pick up sea glass and shells? You can often find signs around national parks asking tourists to “Stay On Path”, “Leave No Trace”, and “Please Don’t Pick The Flowers”. The pleas of these signs indicate the level of destruction caused by unknowing tourists on the environment. We usually only think of ourselves, and our own two feet. “If I just go this way and cut the trail, it’s not going to do any harm.”
I am not exempt from these thoughts. I hike, climb, explore botanical gardens, visit parks, hang out on beaches and so on. I have, throughout my life, collected things from the environments I visit. Some shells here, a leaf there, a rock from there . . . .
When I visited Acadia National Park in Mane, it was the first time I encountered this sign.
“Take only pictures. Leave only footprints”
In addition, along the coast there were big signs asking visitors not to touch the rocks. I could see why they would have to put these signs up, because the rocks were beautiful. They were gray, round, the size of your fist or bigger, and perfectly smooth. But, along with that sign was an information post that told you about the rocks and the importance of them to that shore; the different animals that used the rocks and the way the rocks held the coast together by breaking the waves were all very important to that beach. I found it all very educational.
I took the lesson to heart and have tried to be more conscious of the issue. I no longer take rocks from anywhere. But, sitting around with my sea glass and shells, I started to think: I began going through the catalog in my mind of the destruction that tourists can bring, just because they don’t know any better.
The most stark example that I can think of is the Fairy Pools in Skye, Scotland. Now a huge tourist destination, when we went for the first time in 2014, they were still very quiet with mostly hikers and day travelers walking the shores. When we returned in 2017 we visited the pools again and were horrified by what we found. The place was packed with a hundred cars, a couple tour busses and people swarming the hill like ants. The shore of the river was completely destroyed by a hundred feet with a scattering of sickly bushes trying to survive people trampling all over them. The paths were slick with deep mud and very unfortunately, like in many remote hiking destinations, there was no public restroom for the hundreds of daily visitors.
So with this sea glass in front of me and the thoughts of all my baskets and jars of shells at home, I needed to know if it was okay to collect and take from the beach. What about the dead coral? What about shells?
In 2014, the Smithsonian, The Guardian, and The Conservation Magazine, all published articles discussing this research study: Vanishing Clams on an Iberian Beach: Local Consequences and Global Implications of Accelerating Loss of Shells to Tourism, by Michal Kowaleski, Rosa Domenech, and Jordi Martinell. The study wanted to see if tourists actually were taking a significant number of shells from the beach to the point in which it had an impact on long term shell numbers and if it was something that should be addressed.The study found that over a 30 year period, tourist traffic on the beach tripled, the shell count on the beach decreased 60%, and environmental conditions such as wave patterns remained the same (ruling out environmental factors causing the loss of shells). This study is so important, because it demonstrates that over time, humans actually decrease the overall number of shells washing up on the beach. Please read the article for yourself to better understand the research.
The researcher stated possible ecological effects of the loss of shells being “increased beach erosion, changes in calcium carbonate recycling, and declines in diversity and abundance of organisms, which are dependent on shell availability.” Further research in this area is needed.
As I continued my investigation on the internet, I started to see guides on what shells to collect and which to leave, warnings that there are sometimes things living in the shells that we pick up and general guidelines for shell collecting. Despite this, there is an overall feeling that the ocean seems to have an endless supply of shells and coral. An endless supply? Really? That seems naive and outdated.
“Not only are they [shells] plentiful and essentially supplied by the ocean in never-ending rotation, but the general consensus is that the coastal ecosystem isn’t upset too much when these shells go missing.” Folly Beach
Since tourists are now overrunning beaches all over the world, this natural resource is being pushed to the extreme, this practice of beachcombing has now become a problem. The loss of shells and the destruction of the ecosystem is noted on many beaches. Governments and other authorities are making changes to their respective coastlines trying to restrict which shells are taken, making some shells illegal to take, and trying to limit the number of shells that are allowed to be collected. One example of this is in the Philippines.
In Costa Rica, you need a permit to collect shells and it is illegal to take anything (sticks, feathers, shells, leaves, dirt, etc.) from national parks and beaches. Many tourists suffer the disappointment of having these items confiscated at the airport. Those that do sneak them through (and unfortunately I see people asking how to do this), are smuggling illegal items.
What does seem to be partially safe to pick up is sea glass and other garbage. It is always encouraged to pick up garbage from any beach, park, or outside area. While in Barbados, I saw a video from the Barbados Sea Turtle Project of them running around in the grass next to the beach and saving baby turtles that got stuck in plastic bags on their journey to the sea. The next day while walking along the beach, I picked up plastic bags and trash.
So, now I felt okay about picking up sea glass and regret taking the shells. I have added shells to the list of items I won’t pick up, like the rocks. I will start taking pictures of them and put them in a book, cataloging what I find. A project for another day.
I am still left with bags of sea glass and I need to do something with it. I have put together a couple resources to inspire you to incorporate the glass into your home in fun ways. I plan on trying them all, but for today I made a candle holder and a lamp. Here is what I did:
I went to one of those really cheap home goods stores and found two vases for $7 each, then found two smaller vases that fit inside the larger ones for $8 each. I bought two white candles at $8 each. When I got home I washed everything (including the sea glass), put the small vase inside the larger one, and then filled up the negative space with sea glass. This method allows you to keep your glass safe from wax, and you can easily change candles when you need to. Nothing is glued so if you want to do something else with your glass later, you still have that option. I may later put this same glass into stepping stones in the summer.
The lamp was also super easy. I found the fillable lamp at the same store for $10, and even though it may be on the cheaper side, it serves its purpose beautifully! I opened the lamp, put in my clean sea glass and closed it back up. The wonderful thing about these different projects is that you can do one for each year that you collect, or when you collect from different places. The lamp and the vases came from the same beach, but several years apart.
I hope that you have a wonderful time at the beach hunting for sea glass, cleaning up the ocean, and taking lots of wonderful pictures.
Sea glass stepping stones
Mason jar candle holder
Candle with double layer