You might not be able to spend these dollars at the local supermarket, but come across one and you may feel like you’ve found a treasure.
Beachgoers in the past few months have been sharing photos of sand dollar finds along the shore, a common sight off the Southern California coast decades ago, but less so in recent years.
With extreme winter low tides in the afternoon hours this weekend, it could be a good time to get a glimpse of these beach attractions that look as if they’ve been stamped by a delicate flower.
Julianne Steers, a marine biologist and board member with the Beach Ecology Coalition, said winter months are the best time to find sand dollars, when swells are bigger and can push the lightweight sea creatures to the shoreline.
teers, a diver, said there’s plenty of living sand dollars offshore that beachgoers don’t typically see unless they are below the ocean surface.
Whether they have had a recent resurgence on the sand, though, is debatable. It could that with people sharing their finds on social media, it just appears there have been more sand dollars lately.
“I think that’s part of it. We’re more aware of what’s happening in our natural world,” Steers said. “Every individual is armed with a camera.”
In years past, she said, “If they saw it, they’d appreciate it with who was with them at the time … now they see it, snap a photo and it goes out to everyone.”
Or perhaps their population really is on an upswing. “Every population goes through ups and downs,” she said.
Like sea stars, which were wiped out by the millions a few years ago due to a wasting disease, but now are rebounding, sand dollars are echinoderms, meaning they have five parts, Steers said. The easily identifiable flower-like design is seen on the skeleton after a sand dollar dies and dries out.
Huntington Beach photographer Joe Katchka is regularly on the lookout for them, every time tides recede and expose areas of beach usually covered in saltwater. He brings his two kids — son Jack, 4, and daughter Addison, 6 — along for the exploration.
Katchka’s strategy for finding subjects to photograph: Follow a group of birds feeding in the shallows and you might find their favorite delicacy, such as crabs, starfish and sand dollars.
“You should be able to see the design on top,” he said. “That shows you it is dead.”
Jackie Person, of Huntington Beach, saw one recently during a walk at Bolsa Chica State Beach.
“I went out there and the first thing I saw was that little itsy-bitsy sand dollar,” she said. “The first thing I thought was how cute it was, it looks like a leaf or a flower.”
Sand dollars are related to sea urchins and typically are found in the low intertidal zone from Alaska to Baja, California, according to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.
They use their many spines to burrow themselves into the sand. Those spines also help them travel along the sand’s surface, with the help of the waves. In rough waters, the animals lie flat on the surface of the sand, according to the aquarium.
Sand dollars can reach a diameter of about three inches and have a life span of about eight years. Predators include California sheephead, starry flounder, spiny sand stars and pink stars.
Steers said if you find a sand dollar, even if it’s dead, it’s best to leave it at the beach. Its fragile skeleton eventually crumbles and turns into sand — an important commodity with California beaches becoming sand starved in recent years.
“That’s an important part of our ecosystem,” Steers said. “It’s a crucial part of our habitat, for the sand habitats. Observe with your eyes, take a photo for your memories is the best thing to do, so the habitat can exist for many years to come.”
Want to explore the changing coast?
An Urban Tides Beach Walk will begin at 7 a.m. Saturday, March 7 at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, to learn about the changing coastline, the affects of rising sea levels, and how taking photos can help plan for the future. Meet at the Cabrillo Beach Bath House.
Negative, extreme winter tides are expected in the afternoon hours this weekend, making excellent conditions for tidepooling and exploring the intertidal zones. Low tides should reach -1.3 feet at 2 p.m. Saturday, and -1.4 feet at 2:36 p.m. Sunday, according to tidal charts for Orange County.
What else can you see at low tide? Keep an eye out for crabs, sea urchins, sea slugs, octopuses and more.
And remember, look but don’t take.