Beachcombers from around the world will gather in Galveston this weekend for the 23rd annual Sea-Bean Symposium and Beachcombers’ Festival, a two-day event celebrating the flotsam — debris that has fallen into the water — carried by ocean currents and deposited on the world’s beaches.
Among that flotsam are sea beans, also known as drift seeds, which are fruits with seeds that drop off trees along tropical shores and rain forests and are transported by streams or rivers into oceans. They float along ocean waves until they land on a beach somewhere, such as Galveston Island in February when they can be found among piles of seagrass that wash ashore.
Beachcombers collect them, polish the ones with hard shells and often make art objects of them, including jewelry. One of the symposium events is a trash art contest featuring creations made of sea beans and all manner of flotsam, including plastic bottles, driftwood and anything else retrieved from a beach.
Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a well-known oceanographer and self-proclaimed “flotsametrician” will give the keynote address on Saturday, discussing Atlantic flotsam, some of it from thousands of miles away, that’s washing up in Texas.
“One thing that’s developing is octopus traps circulating around the North Atlantic and coming into Texas,” Ebbesmeyer said. Though he didn’t want to sound alarmist, he said the traps are reported to have mercury in them and deserve close attention. Many of them originate in North Africa or Portugal and circulate all the way around the Atlantic into the Gulf.
Ebbesmeyer, who lives and works in Seattle, has attended the Sea-Bean Symposium for 23 years, reporting on the swirling routes of ocean flotsam, he said. His memoir, “Flotsametrics and the Floating World,” published in 2009 by Smithsonian Books, addressed, among other things, the 25-year journey of thousands of bath toys — turtles, ducks, beavers and frogs — dumped into the North Atlantic in 1992 and retrieved at various sites around the world.
Kayrene Smither, one of this year’s symposium organizers, is a beachcomber who bagged a toy from that lost cargo on Sargent Beach in the eastern corner of Matagorda County.
“She found a green frog that looks like it floated all the way across the North Pole, into the North Atlantic to Texas over 25 years,” Ebbesmeyer said. “In the world of drifting, it shows you how ocean currents can carry items thousands of miles.”
While the symposium is designed for fun and to teach newcomers the fine points of beachcombing and sea-bean collecting, Ebbesmeyer and others will address more serious environmental concerns related to the oceans’ flotsam.
Ebbesmeyer was the scientist who coined the term “Great Garbage Patch” for the massive flotsam deposit in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii that’s now twice the size of Texas.
“I’m so proud of beachcombers,” he said. “They have really inspired a populist movement to get plastic out of the ocean, an environmental movement that has reached the very highest political levels around the world.”