Guide to Beachcombing the Oregon Coast

Posted by OCVA / July 18, 2012

A few years ago, my neighbor found a large, beautiful agate to add to his collection. In the spring of that year, friends and I found the beaches north of Florence littered with thousands of purplish-blue jellies known as by-the-wind sailors. And a Florence couple found a fabulous fossil – a Columbian mammoth molar in excellent condition – while walking on Florence’s south jetty beach.

You never know what you’re going to find wandering Oregon’s beaches, and that’s the allure of beachcombing. The beach changes – day to day, season to season, year to year.

What doesn’t change is that every 24 hours and 50 minutes, the tide rises and falls twice, providing a window of time of a little more than six hours between high and low tides. Tide tables tell beachcombers when to head for the shore. Two hours after high tide, there will be freshly exposed beach, and that’s the best time to start exploring.

For many beachcombers, it’s fun to take a stick and poke around the wrack line of high tide looking through the flotsam and jetsam washed onto the beach.  Shells, driftwood, and glass floats are considered some of the best treasures.

The Oregon Coast, however, is not known for its shells.  Intact shells are rarities here.  If the waves don’t damage them, the gulls will.  Sand dollars can be found on long, sloping beaches at low tide, but you have to be fast to beat the gulls.

The coast does have plenty of driftwood, and it comes in all shapes and sizes.  If the tide is close, stay away from the big stuff.  It takes only about an inch of water to float and roll a log, and you don’t want to be near if that happens.

Japanese glass floats also are rare, because most fishermen have switched to using plastic floats.  However, if the beach is covered with by-the-wind sailors, this could be a signal to look for glass floats.  The strong wind that brought in the jellies might also have brought in floats still riding the currents.

Lincoln City is known for its glass floats.  Each year, October – May, hand-blown glass balls will be placed on the 7 miles of Lincoln City beaches to celebrate the arts and the sea and to attract visitors.  And Gold Beach also place glass floats on nearby beaches, February – April each year.

Agates are among the most sought after treasures of the coast. They come in many colors and patterns, no two alike. They can be clear to orange to blue-gray and often have a milky exterior or flecks of embedded ancient debris.  Look in gravel beds, at the edges of cliffs, and in creeks crossing the beach.  Because of the scouring action of storms, winter is prime time to look for these lustrous, translucent stones.

Storm action also tosses up fossils, and fossil hunting has become quite popular in recent years. According to geologists, most of the fossils found in the Central Coast area are from the Astoria Formation, 15- to 20-million-year-old sandstone layers mixed with compressed volcanic ash. These layers contain the fossilized shells of mollusks, such as clams and snails, and occasionally whale bones, fish teeth, and turtle shells.  Like agates, new fossils are washed onto the beaches as sea cliffs erode during winter storms.

A beachcomber with a sharp eye also might spot petrified wood.  Look for a dull sheen on wet rocks that have wood-grain patterns.  An occasional fossilized leaf impression makes the find especially interesting.

Search for fossils at low tide on sandy beaches, in creek washes, and below the rockier headlands in high-tide rock piles.

Nature’s oddities make beachcombing unpredictable and every trip can hold a fresh surprise.

Foam stacking up on Oregon beaches is not soapsuds or pollution.  It’s created when waves or strong winds inject air into dissolved organic matter in the water, which forms bubbles.  The organic matter is made up primarily of the skeletons of microscopic plants.

By-the-wind sailors are actually jellies known by the scientific name Velella velella.  Velella live offshore and have a triangular, clear sail, which is “set” in a northwest to southeast direction.  In the southern hemisphere, their sails are reversed.  As long as the winds blow gently, Velella stay offshore.  When winds are strong, Velella lose their tacking ability, begin spinning, and are swept onto beaches by the thousands.

After storms, balls of stems, twigs, and grasses form in the rolling action of the surf.  These natural beach balls sometimes are sold as “whale burps,” though they have no relation to whales.

Now that you have an idea of what to look for, let’s get ready to go.

Obtain a tide table booklet from marinas, sporting goods stores, chambers of commerce, or other businesses.  Then check the weather report.

Be sure to dress in layers, because a warm, sunny day can quickly become windy and cold, and fog has a habit of rolling in or dissipating without warning.  Wear sunscreen, a hat that won’t blow off, and waterproof boots or hiking shoes. Bring along rubber gloves for handling strange stuff, plastic bags or a bucket for carrying your sandy treasures, and a stick for poking around.

Whenever you’re on the beach, the adage, “Never turn your back on the ocean,” must be heeded. Sneaker waves really do happen, and once the tide turns, the incoming tide can come in faster than you expect.

Please note that while Oregon’s beaches are public, the seawalls above them generally are not, and it’s against the law to use tools to remove anything from a seawall. Fossils found on public beaches can be taken, but they cannot be sold commercially without a permit.  Do not take anything from marked “marine gardens” or beaches adjacent to Oregon State, U.S. Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management parks, campgrounds, and natural areas.

Preparation and the rules are easy.  The fun is in the search.  Happy beachcombing!

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Guide to Best Places to Beachcomb

Following is a list of locations suggested by some reliable sources, but these do not come with a guarantee for finding treasures.  Sometimes you find what you are looking for; sometimes you don’t.

AGATES

Winter and early spring at low tide are the best times to search.

* Cannon Beach, long, sloping sandy beach.

* Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint, north of Oceanside on the Three Capes Loop, cobble pocket beach near rocky headland.

* Oceanside beach, park in paved parking lot at north end of town.

* Beverly Beach, north of Newport.

* Lost Creek beach, south of Newport

* Cape Perpetua, cobble pocket beach near rocky headland.

* Neptune State Scenic Viewpoint, south of Yachats, check beach and creek.

* Strawberry Hill, south of Yachats, long, sloping, sandy beach.

* Whisky Creek beach, south of Charleston, check beach and creek.

* Gold Beach, broad, sandy beach stretching miles to Otter Point.

FOSSILS

* Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site, south of Cannon Beach, Astoria Formation sandstone.

* Barview Jetty County Park, mouth of Tillamook Bay, west of parking lot.

* Fogarty Creek State Park, south of Lincoln City, from beach walk 3/4-mile north to Astoria Formation sandstone.

* Jump-off Joe, Newport’s Nye Beach, sandstone formation has eroded into a small hill, sandstone burrows mark a transition between brown Astoria Formation and older, gray Nye Mudstone.

* Seal Rock, north of community (not state park), small parking lot with trail to beach, walk north during low tide to exposed Nye Mudstone and Astoria Formation sandstone below bluffs.

* Cape Blanco, north of Port Orford, park at lighthouse and take nature trail to sandy beach; look for rocky piles at low tide.

DRIFTWOOD AND OTHER TREASURES

* Bullards Beach State Park, north of Bandon, long sandy beach.

* Battle Rock Park, Port Orford, tide pools to the right and sandy beach to the left.

* Gold Beach, broad, sandy beaches stretching miles south to Cape Sebastian.

* Whaleshead within Boardman State Scenic Corridor north of Brookings, sheltered beach, large shell middens.

* Lone Ranch, Boardman State Scenic Corridor north of Brookings, sheltered from summer winds.

For additional information about the Oregon coast visit www.VisitTheOregonCoast.com or give us a call at 888-628-2101.

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