Story: Beachcombing

Twice a day the tides wash up driftwood, shells, fishing buoys, and sometimes intriguing clues to life beyond the shoreline. The charm of beachcombing is that you never know what you might find. Read some of the beachcombing stories that New Zealanders have sent in to us.

Story by Carl Walrond
Main image: Jandal on the beach

Story summary

All images & media in this story

What is beachcombing?

When you wander along a beach you can’t help noticing all sorts of things that have been washed up. You might pick up a few – shells, pieces of driftwood, or a dried fish skeleton – and so you become a beachcomber.

Some people go to the beach to collect seaweed for the garden, old whale bones for carving, or gemstones and rare shells.

The fun of beachcombing is that each time the tide washes in and out there’s a whole new scene on the beach and new things to find. Flotsam and jetsam are names given to useless things that people have thrown into the sea and have washed ashore.

Nature finds

  • A couple living in Northland have collected lots of bones from the huge moa bird, which is now extinct. They gave their collection to Kaitāia’s Far North Museum.
  • Tropical creatures, such as sunfish, sea snakes and turtles, may have travelled across the Pacific Ocean. One Southland man has collected skeletons of rare whales and dolphins.
  • Beaches are also linked to the land. Trees or wood fragments are washed down rivers from bush areas out to sea. They become smooth and rounded as they travel, and finally end up back on land as driftwood.

Finding clues

What you find might tell a story. In the days of sailing ships you would find pieces of cork, wood or rope that had been thrown overboard. If a ship was wrecked, all sorts of treasure might wash up. During the First World War, people occasionally found an unexploded German mine on the beach.

Near Wanganui a boy discovered the remains of a human skeleton in a sandhill. He learned that it was from an old Māori battleground.

Having fun

The sea can connect people. A 16-year-old New Zealand girl found a message in a bottle she picked up from a beach. An Australian girl the same age had thrown it from a passing cruise liner. The two have now been friends for more than 20 years.

At Titirangi beach two schoolboys sent a message in a bottle out to sea. Weeks later a parcel arrived in the mail, sent by the people who had found the bottle on a beach. They had drawn a map showing where the bottle had travelled.


A huge amount of plastic and other rubbish washes up. Some of it, such as bottles, cans, and pieces of fishing net, may have been tossed from boats. Other unwanted items come down to the sea from rivers or drains.

How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Beachcombing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 May 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 12 June 2006