Coastal Treasures: Beachcombing with Ceridwen Fraser
While many of us consider visiting the beach a summer-time activity, in fact our beaches have plenty of hidden wonders to explore all year round. Beaches are our windows to the ocean, and the objects we find on them tell stories about life, death and dynamic processes in the sea.
Ceridwen (Crid) Fraser is the ocean-loving author of Beachcombing: A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere and is a marine scientist now based in New Zealand. Crid shared with us how her own early beachcombing experiences kindled her passion for the ocean, some of the fascinating things Australian beachgoers might find, and how eagle-eyed beachcombers can help advance our understanding of marine science.
What inspired you to write Beachcombing?
A walk on the beach on 25 March 2020, the day New Zealand was going into lockdown! The upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic and working from home made it hard to focus on ‘normal’ work all the time, especially with family and pets leaping off the walls in the background. I worked on the book when I couldn’t get the vibe for other work going. After all, I became a marine biologist because the things that live in the ocean are AMAZING and oh, so cool… so it was calming (while sitting at my makeshift office space, a folding table in my bedroom) to write about some of the coolest creatures you come across at the shore, and what makes things happen in the sea.
Even now, after years of training in marine science, I still sometimes find things on beaches that puzzle me. Things I poke at and try to identify. I figured maybe I’m not the only one – most people like beaches (don’t they?) and probably wonder about the weird things they find on them. I thought a guidebook to what’s what on beaches might be an interesting thing for people to have on their coffee tables or keep in their gloveboxes.
Was there anything new you discovered as you were writing this book?
Most of the snippets of information in the book started with something I knew from studying marine science at university – such as that bluebottles are colonies of organisms all working together but playing different roles, and that barnacles have incredibly long penises to compensate for being stuck in one place.
But once I started to write and research, there was heaps of cool new information I discovered. For example, I didn’t know that ambergris forms only in sperm whale guts, and that it’s a festering lump of faeces and bacteria around a squid beak! And I didn’t know (until I found some on a beach last year) about Phronima, the parasitic amphipod that takes over the body of a salp and looks just like the queen from the movie Alien. I was also surprised to learn how long shark embryos take to develop inside their eggs – for example, Port Jackson shark embryos emerge from the egg case (which the mother wedges in rocks or seaweeds) after about 10-11 months!
What drew you to study marine science?
I grew up in Canberra, which of course has no ocean beaches – but every summer, without fail, my family would spend a few weeks camping at Pebbly Beach on the NSW south coast. Those weeks were the highlight of the year, swimming, reading, and poking around in rock pools. I’d spend the rest of the year in school dreaming and doodling about our next trip to Pebbly Beach.
When I was 11, we spent a few months living in the US and my science teacher there had an aquarium that he’d put rock pool creatures in. I’d sit at the back of the class staring into the tank, watching brightly coloured flatworms glide in undulating beauty through the water and hermit crabs scuttling madly about. That teacher, Mr Wormack, had studied marine biology and suggested I do the same. So I committed then and there to become a marine biologist. I took a bit of a detour at university, first doing a degree in conservation of cultural materials, but got back on track in the end!
Why are Australian beaches good for beachcombing?
Australia’s coasts are affected by some really powerful ocean currents, and we see fascinating evidence of that in long-distance dispersal of marine larvae along the eastern coast… or the occasional gruesome discovery of body parts that can wash up hundreds of kilometres from where they entered the water. Currents can transport things long distances and in surprising directions – for example, the East Australian Current weakens in winter and at that time, eddies can actually push things northwards along the coast. Finding out more about the things that we discover washed up on beaches can give exciting insights into ocean dynamics.
What part can beachcombers and citizen scientists play in marine science research?
Scientists spend a lot of time in the lab and the office – it’s not all (or even much) swimming with dolphins. Trapped behind a desk or lab bench, we can easily miss important discoveries that could be made. Savvy people walking along beaches with sharp eyes are in a perfect position to notice oddities and bring them to the attention of scientists!
I love to hear from people who find interesting things, and these days we can often do genetic tests to work out where unexpected beach-cast things have come from. With warming, many coastal ecosystems are changing, and dispersal processes are changing too. New observations can help us to track those changes, and forecast what will happen in the future.
And of course one day I’d like to do another, better edition of this book, with more information and more images! So I’d love to receive photos of strange beachcombing finds, if people are willing to send them in – you can contact me via my website.
Beachcombing: A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere is the perfect companion for beach walks. Rediscover the delight of poring over pretty shells, poking about in rockpools and admiring the alien objects that wash ashore, and learn about the intriguing reasons these organisms have come to be there.
You can purchase your copy from our website or your local bookstore.
Teacher Notes are also available from our website as a free PDF download.