While you may find sand dollars on many Oregon beaches, they can be found in particular abundance in Seaside, making searching for these ocean mementos a favorite family tradition. In fact, the silvery white, beautifully circular and stamped with a gorgeous flower-shaped pattern sand dollars are some of the most coveted beachcombing finds for visitors.
Sand dollars, animals often described as flat sea urchins, thrive on wide-open beaches — which is why these creatures are especially fond of Seaside. “At Seaside Beach, we have this big, open sandy area that is perfect for their habitat,” says Tiffany Boothe, assistant manager of Seaside Aquarium, which is just off Seaside’s famed Promenade, a century-old paved walking path that extends for one and a half miles along the sandy shore. “We’ve also got the Columbia and the Necanicum rivers nearby, which create the perfect condition for diatom blooms — plankton that razor clams and sand dollars love.”
Sand dollars rely on the sand for their survival. When they’re underwater at high tide, they use it as an anchor to help them stand upright to catch food with their spines and move it toward their central mouths. They also use the sand to hide from predators, burrowing underneath the ocean floor to protect themselves from becoming prey. Here’s how to search for whole sand dollars like a pro — and earn another kind of dollar while you’re at it.
How to Search the Shores Respectfully
While everyone is welcome to walk the beach and scour for these special finds, always leave living sand dollars behind — these are light to dark purple and covered in fuzzy-looking spines. And where you see one, you might find many more. Sand dollars tend to crowd around each other in colonies, with as many as 600 found in 1 square yard.
The sand dollars that make good trinkets are actually the animal’s exoskeleton, bleached white by the sun and smooth to the touch. Fun fact: Pacific sand dollars have five teeth they use to grind up their food. When you shake a sand dollar’s exoskeleton, you might hear the animal’s loose teeth knocking around inside. A sand dollar’s age can also be determined by counting the growth rings on the plates of the exoskeleton — a fun activity for kids. They can live up to 10 years.
Even though sand dollar exoskeletons are OK to take home, visitors are encouraged to only take a few. “They’re fun souvenirs, but the calcium in the shell does provide nutrients for the local environment,” Boothe says. “You might not want to pick up every single one you see. Seagulls will eat their insides, and a lot of arthropods [invertebrates like crabs, shrimp and krill] consume these guys too.”
Tips for Finding Sand Dollars
Intact sand dollar exoskeletons are best found in the spring and summer, as ocean conditions from offshore storms in the fall and winter often break them up before they wash ashore.
“The best way to find a sand dollar is to go out about an hour before low tide,” Boothe says. “If you go before low tide, you get to look a little longer before the tide comes in, and it also allows you to beat the seagulls to them.”
While enjoying your hunt along the beach, be sure to make safety a top priority. Sneaker waves can catch anyone off guard, surging high onto the beach with incredible force. Make sure to look up occasionally from scanning the ground to check on ocean conditions — and never turn your back to the sea.
Always steer clear of logs that are in the surf or on wet sand, as strong waves can pick them up and move them unexpectedly. Stay off rocks, and be cautious of entering small, enclosed beaches as incoming tides can isolate rocks from headlands.
A Chance to Give Back
When you head out for your Seaside beachcombing adventure, consider pairing your search for shells with a search for something that threatens living sand dollars and other creatures as well as human health: trash like straws, rope, old fishing lures, and styrofoam. Plus, in Seaside, collecting beach trash not only improves the beach for everyone but can actually earn you a latte, hot chocolate or cookie.
To participate in Seaside’s Beach Cleanup Coins program, stop by the Seaside Aquarium to pick up free garbage bags and gloves. Fill your bags as you beachcomb, then snap a selfie with your full bags as you drop them next to any trash cans along the Prom. Lastly, stop by the Visitors Bureau to collect $5 in cleanup coins for each person who filled a bag, redeemable dollar-for-dollar at several local Seaside coffee shops.