How often do we wander along the beach and find ourselves captivated by a beautiful seashell? Rudy van der Elst, author of the new book, Beachcombing in South Africa, gives us some insight into the origins and life stories of strandline creatures and other beach finds. You’ll see South Africa’s beaches are overflowing with treasures – you never know what you might stumble upon. By Gaynor Siljeur

From delicately coloured seashells and mysterious egg pouches to driftwood and flotsam washed up on the shore, our beaches feature a fascinating array of creatures and objects. No wonder Rudy van der Elst, marine biologist and author of Beachcombing in South Africa, says there is so much appeal to searching the shoreline.

On the beach at St Lucia in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Pictures by Rudy van der Elst

“Beachcombing is very satisfying and personally rewarding. Whether you are alone or with family, it combines scientific curiosity with healthy outdoor activity. Beachcombing can be full of surprises, sometimes mysterious, romantic, educational, spiritual, intrepid and many other ways. I have never met a person who did not enjoy a beachcombing experience,” he says.

A colourful collection of sea stars.

It’s also an excellent way to get to know your environment more closely. “It gives you a sense of the types of beaches, tides, phases of the moon, general weather patterns and even a sense of climate change. There is the added bonus of the invariable sightings of feeding fish, dolphins, seabirds and other marine life,” Rudy explains.

An enviable shoreline

South Africa’s coastline measures about 3,000km, much of it endowed with fabulous beaches and beautiful shorelines. This long coastline has an incredible biodiversity derived from a variety of ecosystems – from tropical coral reefs to cool kelp beds, with mangrove forests, sea grass beds, dunes and much more.

Live jellyfish at sea provide shelter for juvenile fishes. Picture by Valda Fraser

One of the fascinating coastal sights Rudy singles out is visvywers (tidal pool fish traps) constructed by early Stone Age people. “These coastal relics of our heritage are still evident and functional today.” Visitors to Agulhas National Park can see examples of these fish traps on the Rasperpunt walking trail.

The viswyvers at Stilbaai clearly show the arrangement of rocks into intertidal pools, used to trap fish on outgoing tides.

“Many fine beaches are located at our national and coastal parks. However, any beach can be interesting for beachcombing – even a small patch of beach can yield much fascination.” If you want to turn your beach walk into a journey of discovery, Rudy suggests that you plan your beachcombing ventures to coincide with an outgoing low spring tide in the morning. By setting out early, fewer people will have beaten you to the streamline.

Turban Alikreukel

Colourful sea urchins

Sea urchin shells

Wherever you go to explore, you can do your bit for marine life by removing any plastic you find on the beach. If you come across injured and stranded animals, tagged birds and fish, dislodged scientific equipment or wreckage, report these finds to local authorities. Rudy’s book, Beachcombing in South Africa, lists relevant contact details. And remember to adhere to regulations – you’re not allowed to remove any natural objects from a protected area. That pretty seashell may seem irresistible, but you could be removing a hermit crab’s future home.

Coast care teams operating in Struisbaai.

Also read: Five Wild tips for beginner beach walking

Surprising finds

Asked about his most unusual beach finds, Rudy says: “Sometimes it’s best not to have expectations, but merely to enjoy the beach walk… surprises do come!”

“One day in July, on a beach near Karridene in KwaZulu-Natal, I noticed thousands of small round balls, slightly smaller than a golf ball, rolling around in the swash zone. They were very light and on closer examination proved to have been made up out of a myriad of fish bones, very tightly packed as they tumbled in the surf.

“I established that days before there had been a mass mortality of sardines, attributed to their abnormally high concentration combined with unseasonal high water temperatures. A huge shoal of the sardines had become trapped in a bay and had all died in mass, their flesh rapidly decaying, leaving only the bones to combine into these unusual fish bone tumblers!”

But that wasn’t the only surprising find Rudy has come across along the KZN coast. On a walk near Salt Rock, Rudy and his family spotted what looked like a drum floating on the surf towards the shore. Concerned that it might have contained toxic material, Rudy recovered it from the shoreline. To his surprise it was a sealed 20L drum filled with cashew nuts that must’ve fallen off a ship. “Needless to say, my family thrived on the export quality cashews for months.”

Beachcombing in South Africa. Rudy van der Elst. Struik NatureBeachcombing in South Africa is available at R180.

This user-friendly guide has chapters on the main creatures and objects you may encounter along the coast, from shorebirds and shells to plants and sea-beans. The book is available at all major book bookstores and online at Penguin Random House, Loot and Readers Warehouse.