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Colorful, creature-filled, art cover of Our World Ocean

In the Periscope: Tiny Treasures by Colleen Chamberlin

A young Colleen Chamberlin stand by her 3-panel science fair poster titled "Drift Seeds and Fruits: Identification and Research"
Colleen Chamberlin presents her prize-winning research on sea beans at the Palm Beach Regional Science Fair in 1971. Credit: Florida Naturalist Magazine
A reddish-brown, heart-shaped drift seed.
Sea hearts (Entada gigas) come from a vine native to Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Credit: istock/Rajesh A
Colleen Chamberlin on a white Sanibel Island sand beach bordered by coastal pines and seagrapes.
Colleen Chamberlin looking for “tiny treasures” on a beach at Sanibel Island, Florida, in 2004. Credit: Laurie Chamberlin

My love for the ocean began as a small child walking the beach with my mom. Nearly every weekend, just after sunrise and before other beachcombers were out, she would take me “treasure hunting” to see what had washed up on the shore. The beach was a magical place full of wonder and beauty. I would soon discover its tiny treasures.

As I walked along the beach, I noticed that the seashells on the beach presented themselves as a wide swath, gently laid at the high tide line. They didn’t seem to be in any particular order. Big shells lay next to small ones. Seaweed, baked by the sun, formed another line farther up the beach. Occasionally I found a dried seahorse in the seaweed. Small crabs and pieces of driftwood were among the many surprises tangled in the web of weeds.

But my most valued treasures were the various sea beans I uncovered—seeds transported by currents in the ocean. The first ones I found were shaped like hamburgers, a brownish red bean with a black band. Next I stumbled upon the knickernut, a small, hard bean, gray in color, and about the size of a nickel. I think “nicklenut” may have been a better name. What I loved about this bean was they could be made hot by rubbing them on the concrete. My most prized discovery was the sea heart. This large dark brown bean came in the shape of a heart. Where did it come from? Would it grow if I planted it? 

As I got older, my enthusiasm grew. At age ten, I would ride my bike to the library and rummage through stacks of books, magazines, and encyclopedias. So many questions to answer. How did the sea beans get here? How far had they traveled? Why were there more in the summer months than the winter?

When I was thirteen, I entered my sea bean collection in a science fair. I had already identified each bean by its Latin and common names. My goal was to create a map that would show the countries where the beans originated and the currents that brought them to my beach. That’s when I learned about the Gulf Stream, how its flows could change the trajectory of these tiny little beans. It was through this project that I really began to understand the connections between beaches all over the world. And I won a prize!

The ocean is a place where you can discover all sorts of treasures. Fifty years later, I find the same species lying on the beach near my home on the west coast of Mexico. I fell in love with the ocean at an early age and I still live near the beach today. I’m fascinated by the ocean. And it all started with a treasure hunt on the beach.