Searching For Sea Glass
Sea Glass Hunters Travel For Hours, Withhold The Whereabouts Of Their Quests And (If They Must) Fend Off Wild Dogs, In Pursuit Of The Smooth, Frosted Treasures That Were Once Someone’s Trash
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There’s a spot on the North End, not far from where the ocean meets the bay, that’s the best place in Virginia Beach to find sea glass.
Among locals, it’s the worst-kept secret in town. It’s a private beach and has a “No Trespassing” sign, but nothing stands in the way of a hunter and his or her sea glass. You won’t find the specific location in this article, for fear of inviting the collectors’ wrath.
“Good sea glass hunters don’t give away their favorite spots,” says Virginia Beach resident and sea glass scourer Joy Haycox.
Many people think of sea glass as something peddled in beach gift shops, next to the baby shark fetuses preserved in jars. But any sea glass hunters worth their weight in glass have no use for the gift shop stuff. Most of it is man-made and mass-produced. The real value is searching for the glass that takes the ocean a lifetime to mature—and finding a piece of art made by nature. When it comes to sea glass, the long game is the only one that matters.
Plenty don’t know that sea glass has been tumbling onto the shores of Virginia Beach for decades. It’s not as plentiful as it once was, but look around a home on the North End, and you’ll likely find a jar or bowl filled with sea glass of all shapes, sizes and colors. And there’s even better glass to be found, locals say, if you cross the bridge to Virginia’s Eastern Shore or head south to Nags Head.
On one May morning, Richard LaMotte, a noted sea glass expert, chooses the Eastern Shore.
He stands on a beach that he hasn’t visited for a decade. And he wishes he’d worn a hat. The wind tousles LaMotte’s wavy brown hair.
The son of a preacher who grew up in Portsmouth, LaMotte first found this secret spot when someone asked him to come to town to give a sea glass presentation. His first book on sea glass came out a couple years earlier, and a local tipped LaMotte, who now lives in Chestertown, Md., off to the site.
It’s a place where beachgoers find beautifully frosted sea glass that has been bumping around the floor of the Chesapeake Bay for a century or more.
LaMotte, whose notoriety as a sea glass expert landed him on Martha Stewart’s talk show, agreed to let this Coastal Virginia Magazine correspondent shadow him on a hunt.
Top: Sea glass expert and author Richard LaMotte examines a piece of glass he
found on a beach on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Bottom: Sea glass author Richard LaMotte scours the sand on a beach known for
sea glass on the Eastern Shore.
Things start off kind of slow. LaMotte, 57, wonders aloud whether other hunters had already harvested the beach that morning. But, as it turns out, there’s plenty of glass to be found.
The beauty of sea glass is also its burden. It was once trash.
But Mother Ocean wouldn’t stand for it. Her salt water and rocky bottom smoothed out the sharp edges—just like life does to people—and frosted its clear complexion.
Sea glass mostly comes from bottles, broken after they’ve been dumped into bays, the ocean and other waterways. But it takes many moons—30 to 50 years—for a piece of glass to become frosted and rounded.
Two different processes give it that look, LaMotte says: The salt water extracts soda and lime from glass, and the glass grinds against rocks and shells.
Mary Paul Callis has a jar of mysterious pastel blue tile that has been washing up on
the shores of Virginia Beach for at least five decades.
Haycox, a 51-year-old television producer, calls herself a “sea glass freak.” She even fended off a pack of wild dogs on a beach in Morocco in her search of it.
Her home in the North End is evidence of her obsession. She has jars of it in her living room and home office and some in her yard and driveway. The most special pieces, though, are organized in bags and dated. “Until I find out what to do with them,” she says.
Haycox knows the best time to hunt for it is during low tide, after a storm. But she takes her sea glass forecasting a couple steps further, researching places where marinas used to be—they’re fantastic spots for sea glass—and arriving 45 minutes before low tide.
“To beat the people,” she says.
There’s one item that some collectors in Virginia Beach treasure more than sea glass. For at least five decades, mysterious chunks of a pastel blue tile have been washing ashore. It’s harder to find than sea glass—and the soft blue is as pretty as can be when found in a bed of sand.
North End resident Mary Paul Callis, 57, believes that it’s from a hotel’s oceanfront pool or bathhouse that got washed into the ocean many years ago, possibly during the infamous Ash Wednesday storm in 1962. (LaMotte thinks that’s a good theory.)
“It’s a good day when you’ve found sea glass, but it’s a great day when you find the blue tile,” Callis says.