Winter is a great time to go beachcombing. High winds, high tides and rough seas churn up a lot of stuff and leave it on shore for the discriminating walker to find. What you find will vary with where you are on the Cape, so bring your sense of adventure, bundle up and don’t forget to bring your binoculars because you may find some pretty cool birds as well. If you’re really lucky you might spot a right whale.
I live on the south side of the Cape where the water is a little warmer and calmer due to the Gulf Stream and some protection offered by the islands and the lay of the land. We can find all sorts of intact bay scallop and whelk shells as well as the sheds of horseshoe crabs on a regular basis all winter long. Occasionally we find sea scallop shells, mussels and soft-shell clams as well as the ubiquitous quahogs.
There can also be skate and whelk egg cases, bits of driftwood and a variety of raggedy feathers tossed upon the sand. Thousands and thousands of boat shells can be found and there is rarely a shortage of yellow or orange jingle shells. Several kinds of crab shells can be found, but especially spider crab shells and an occasional blue crab shell or claws.
Cross over the Cape to the bay and there’s a whole different array of finds. I took a long walk along a bayside beach last week and found a satisfying number of huge and iconic sea clam shells and a multitude of wiry black skate egg cases. If you’re of a certain age you may remember when those big shells were known as Cape Cod ashtrays. The skate egg cases are often called mermaid’s purses, but even as a kid I thought those mermaids must have really been tiny.
I was on the lookout for sand dollars and sea urchin shells as I’ve found them before in that location, but on this day, no such luck. I did find lots of quahog shells, periwinkles, blue mussels and moon snail shells.
The crabs on the bay side are colder water crabs than those found on the south side, though in some areas you can find a certain amount of crossover, especially near estuaries or harbors. Mostly though, you’ll find rock crabs and Jonah crabs on the north side with an occasional calico shell poking up through the sand. The latter are more fragile so can be hard to find whole but there are usually plenty of claws lying around.
Sometimes one finds really interesting human-made things. I’ve found all sorts and sizes of shoes and hats, buoys and fishing gear as well as an astounding amount of trash and litter. Once I found an old piece of military artillery and found that these finds are not uncommon, due to training that once went on in Cape Cod Bay. Recently I found a rust-encrusted piece of iron that had probably come from a ship. It was hand sized, quite heavy and rather interesting to behold so I brought it home and stuck it on my mantel. It makes a great conversation piece and story prompt.
On the outer Cape it is rare to find intact shells of any kind in winter, including the big, tough sea clam shells. Everything there takes a beating but it’s fun to explore the wrack line to see what has washed in with the last high tide. Look for sponges, driftwood and even bones of fish or seals.
Winter is a great time for imagining how and why certain things wash up on shore. Sometimes one comes across a dead bird or seal, half buried in the sand, giving one pause even on the brightest of days.
If we stop to think about it, almost everything we find on the winter beach is dead. The shells we find are left behind once the animal inside has perished. Feathers have been molted, and even the driftwood, whether a branch from a tree or an old board from a ship, has left life behind.
Walks on the beach are always good for contemplation and meditation. Winter walks can be especially so as we consider our place in the world, the fragility of life, and the temporary nature of all things, including ourselves.