New Zealand’s long coastline acts like a net. Flotsam and jetsam borne on ocean currents fetch up on our shores. Flotsam is wreckage found floating on the sea, while jetsam is what is thrown overboard from passing ships and then washes ashore. The terms are often used together – ‘flotsam and jetsam’ describes useless or discarded objects.
If something floats it will probably end up on a beach somewhere. Objects from the Tasman Sea, the Pacific, the Southern Ocean or even further afield wash up on New Zealand shores. Things might be tossed from boats or washed through storm-water systems, streams or rivers and into the sea.
In New Zealand no one lives far from the sea, and one of the typically New Zealand experiences is to walk along an empty beach. Some people walk their dogs; others merely wander. Arms and pockets become laden with tidal treasures, and so the beachgoers become beachcombers.
Following the February 2004 floods in the Manawatū, countless onions littered Kapiti coast beaches, telling residents what they already knew – that market gardens had been washed away. Vegetable prices skyrocketed as a result.
Beachcombing is a hit-and-miss activity – you find whatever the waves wash up. It appeals to our gathering instinct.
Pumice, the rock that floats, washes up on many North Island beaches. People sometimes carve this porous stone or use it to smooth calluses on the feet. Colourful pāua and fan-shaped scallop shells become makeshift containers or ashtrays. Some beachcombers find ambergris – an excretion of the sperm whale’s gut which commands a high price from perfume makers.
Those who regularly search the tide line know it is full of clues to the creatures that live offshore. Occasionally, odd tropical visitors such as sunfish, sea snakes and turtles are cast ashore, giving us the sense of being a small group of islands in the vast Pacific.
Some things that come ashore can be eaten. In the past, frostfish, which beach themselves, were gratefully cooked up by the lucky finder. Māori ate freshly stranded whales and dolphins, and used their bones for carving. In some areas, remains of old Māori coastal settlements are uncovered by erosive waves or wind.
As well as being hunters, we are instinctive gatherers, with an eye for the useful, as well as the beautiful. Bach owners and coastal farmers gather washed-up wooden planks to make repairs to their dwellings and sheds. Driftwood, carried out to sea by rivers, is collected as firewood, while armloads of seaweed become garden mulch.
Scientist Bruce Hayward surveyed New Zealand’s beach litter between 1974 and 1997. His findings supported an often-heard claim that left-foot jandals are washed up more frequently than right-foot ones. Of 21 jandals and shoes found, 70% were for a left foot. Perhaps, because the majority of people favour their right foot, jandals slip more easily off the left foot.
Shell collectors pick up cat’s eyes, sand dollars, and violet snails – commonly found after a storm – while rockhounds may look for jasper, agate and garnets. Some people pick up colourful buoys from fishing nets and hang them from garden trees. Old glass buoys, originally encased in netting, are especially prized.
What washes up has changed over time. From the earliest days of settlement the remains of wrecked sailing ships would appear on the beach, their planks being salvaged for houses. In the 19th century a beachcomber might find bits of cork, wood and hemp rope, and pitch used for caulking wooden hulls.
In the First World War the occasional German mine washed up. In the era of passenger liners, hopeful romantics dropped messages in bottles into the Tasman Sea. Then during the 1960s and 1970s plastic bottles with Asian script announced the arrival of fishing boats from Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan. And more recently the throwaway society, with its plastics and disposable packaging, has added to the litter on beaches.
We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words about what they have discovered along the coastline. Here is a selection in which the beachcomber has enjoyed a memorable experience.
We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words about what they have discovered along the coastline. Here is a selection in which the beachcomber has come across clues to past events.
We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words about what they have discovered along the coastline. Here is a selection in which beachcombers have found fascinating examples of sea life.
Crowe, Andrew. The life-size guide to the New Zealand beach: featuring the odd things that we get washed up on the sand. Auckland: Penguin, 2004.
Evans, Alice. Mount Camel calling Auckland: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.
Hall-Jones, John. Stewart Island explored. Invercargill: Craig Printing Company, 1994.
Hayward, Bruce W. ‘A load of old rubbish: Kawerua beach litter surveys, 1974–1997’ Tane 37 (1999): 15–26.
Walrond, Carl. ‘Beachcombers and castaways.’ New Zealand Geographic 56 (March–April 2002): 102–109.
A link to a 1978 paper describing the growing problem of plastic granules in the sea and on beaches.
This website publishes reports of sightings of marine species and other beach finds around New Zealand.
This paper by Murray Gregory, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand (1991) is a survey of plastic litter and debris on New Zealand beaches.