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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The glass ball: A beachcomber's lament

This time of year is often a bit deflating. Winter has barely begun and the next couple of months promise only darkness and cold. Yet when I was growing up on the shores of the Pacific, this time of year was rivaled only by Christmas in terms of sheer excitement. The holidays might be over, but it was mere weeks until glass ball season.

In the first few months of the year, I would eagerly await the raging south-west winds, which often heralded exotic treasures from the open sea. If these storms sustained themselves for long enough, they would begin to transport objects from the North Pacific current straight to our doorstep on the BC coast.

The North Pacific Current runs from the open ocean east of Japan to the open ocean west of California and forms the northern portion of the North Pacific Gyre. At its eastern terminus, the warm Kuroshio current from the south collides with the arctic Oyashio Current to feed the North Pacific Current. This brings all sorts of unusual items from the coast of Japan into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of this debris ends floating around in the Pacific or washes up on the shores of Hawaii, but given the right conditions, some would make it to North America.

Vellela near Monteray (credit: NOAA)
The first treasures to arrive were often Vellela: bright blue, sail-backed hydrozoan colonies. Hydrozoa are closely related to jellyfish and coral, and each individual vellela is actually a multitude of tiny polyps which resemble miniature sea anemones. These colourful, sailing colonies are at the mercy of the winds and often end up stranded on the shore. After some large storms, the beaches were literally blue with Vellela.

Soon after the Vellela showed up, debris would start to wash ashore that were covered with pelagic barnacles and Japanese writing. The former were a sign that debris had been at sea for a long time. The latter was confirmation that conditions were right for finding the delicate fishing floats. And find them we did, sometimes by the dozen, in all shapes and sizes. Each one unique.

Norwegian fishermen were the first to use glass floats to replace wood and cork in the 1840s, and the practice caught on in Japan by 1910. The floats were originally blown, often from recycled glass (most of the balls were green because the glass came from old sake bottles). Millions of these floats were produced by hand in cottage-industries for Japan's large deep-sea fishing fleet. Together, thousands of tiny glass spheres would support drift-nets, some of which stretched for tens of kilometers.

Later-model floats were cast in wooden molds to make them more uniform in size. Eventually, it was cheaper to make floats out of plastic and aluminum, so glass ball numbers declined in the Pacific. There was a brief resurgence of glass floats following the 1979 energy crises (which is why I remember them from my childhood), but they are now all but extinct in the wild. It is rare indeed to find one freshly washed up on the beach these days.

This isn't meant to be a nostalgic encomium of the past. Drift-net fishing, the original reason for the creating glass floats, is a terrible practice. But the disappearance of the glass floats is not due to a decline in the use of drift-nets. Rather the extirpation of glass floats from Pacific shores is the result of a global trend which has replaced glass (which is fairly benign in the marine environment) with plastics in many manufacturing industries. And plastics, as I've mentioned previously, are bad news for the environment

Now, instead of finding shiny glass orbs scattered along the beach in late winter, beachcombers are greeted by a tide-line of plastic refuse. I still enjoy beach-combing, but it seems my chances of finding a glass ball are much higher on eBay.


  1. Nice blog. You're really "on the ball", Jake.

  2. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Nice piece Jake. Brought back a lot of great memories of beachcombing and exciting finds. Despite my sometimes gypsy life and many, many moves I have managed to hold on to two of the balls I found on the west coast of the island back in the mid 70s. Sure brought more joy than plastic does now. Although the Nike period was fun. No doubt those delighted the scientists studying currents. Keep up the great work.

  4. Thank you. Yes the Nikes were fun (though I never found a pair that matched), as were the hockey gear and bath toys. Lots of interesting current studies done on the thins that fell off of freighters in those days.

  5. Cape Foulweather FriendApril 14, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    I enjoyed your beachcombers lament. Although now is not the time to give up. Oriental glass floats still grace the central oregon coast from time to time.

    This year has been slow- but last year was great! I found 33 floats last year including 5 12 inch floats.

    Keep the faith Jake- I looked for some 44 years before finding my first.