Column: Amazing what the beach will give up

Last week my dog, Mabel, found a starfish on a Shelter Island beach. I measured, Googled and identified it as a knobby starfish, native to Malaysia. It was so perfect, and so far from home that it either fell off a seashell truck or was left as a prank. (You got me!) Mabel was in favor of eating it.

I like beachcombing and rarely return from the beach without something in my pocket. It’s a practice I share with Mabel, who frequently accompanies me, although what she finds rarely makes it home. We walk between the low and high tide lines, noses down, searching the sand for stories. And we are not the only ones who find interesting stuff on Shelter Island beaches.

Thrift is one thing that motivates PJ Lechmanski to beachcomb. “Almost all my fishing lures come from the Ram Island causeway,” PJ said. “I haven’t bought one in 15 years.” In 2010, PJ found a television on the first causeway to Little Ram Island just after Hurricane Igor, but did not attempt a salvage. 

Since PJ is an expert at dealing with animals in places where they shouldn’t be (he works in pest control), a friend called him after discovering a four-foot-long pinkish fish with a distinctly prehistoric look washed up at Big Ram. They identified the beast as an Atlantic sturgeon, an endangered deepwater species rarely seen in these parts.

Where did it come from? How did it end up here? 

Paul Shepherd thinks the reason people love finding things on the beach is “the mystery of the journey.” Mystery indeed. He’s taken home two sets of stairs from the beach — which he installed and used — and a very large, well-made plastic container with a ring lock top that once held olives. 

Some people beachcomb for aesthetic reasons. A friend who visits me every summer is so enamored by the jingle shells on Shell Beach that she’s redecorated her bathroom to match, and displays her collection in a glass dish next to her toothbrush.

As a child, Tim Purtell collected scallop shells in shades of orange, yellow, brown and white, including tiny, perfect ones he would fit on the tip of his finger. “I kept a collection of the best ones in an old black velvet jewelry box,” Tim said. “I loved holding them up to the light.”

John Pagliaro is an artist who started looking for arrowheads on Island beaches to use in his ceramic pieces. The handful of Dalton point arrowheads he says he found here — tools used about 10,000 years ago — turned his beachcombing into a way of documenting thousands of years of Islanders who called this place home long before Nathaniel Sylvester showed up.

Meryl Rosofsky prowls Wades Beach and Reel Point on the lookout for symmetrical stones. “If I see a heart-shaped stone that catches my eye, I keep it for good luck,” she said. Meryl also looks for jingle shells, which she refers to as “grandmothers’ toenails,” a name that may explain why so many grandparents keep their shoes on.

The primary difference between finding an antique of historical interest and beach trash is one hundred years. Some of the bottles from Prohibition-era drinking binges, collected by Lawson Brigham from the Island shoreline, are so rare and beautiful that it’s easy to forget they are evidence of the same impulse as today’s pile of crushed beer cans and empty bottles of Jim Beam.

One thing that has changed over time is the variety of creatures found by beachcombers. There are fewer. Vicki Weslek used to look for frogs living near the walls under the white fence at Crescent Beach. She recalls that she and her mother would stay at the beach until prime frog-finding time near the end of the day. It’s one joy of the beach that Vicki can’t share with her own youngsters since she hasn’t seen a frog at the beach in years. 

Dulcinea Benson grew up on the Great South Bay and now does her beachcombing on Silver Beach, where she keeps an eye out for mermaid’s purse, “little black horned pods with a magical creature inside.” As a child she learned that those egg cases contained fertilized skate embryos waiting to hatch. “As I get older there is still a romantic possibility I will find something special on the beach from far away,” Dulcinea said. “Sometimes treasure is a little egg sack waiting to hatch.”

Some people find the idea of beachcombing disgusting, and JoAnn Sherman admits she is one of those. “I’m not a beach person,” she said. “I enjoy standing in chlorinated water with people. And the feel of concrete under my feet.” 

JoAnn gets her beach glass from a store.

Julia Labrozzi, home for the summer after her first year at college, remembers childhood dreams of finding buried treasure on the beach, fueled by outings with the family metal detector. She’s still a beachcomber. “I’m fascinated with things I find on the beach because each has its own story,” Julia said. “Even beach glass, once hard and sharp, has been transformed into something soft, dull and beautiful. Finding creatures on the beach is fascinating because their lives are so unknown to us. And it’s a great way to get out and appreciate our Island.”

The author is a writer for the Shelter Island Reporter.