Sand Dollar Significance: A Story About Beach Walks & Meaning


There’s something about the first barefooted step into midday sand at the beach. Soft, warm, glistening, form-fitting–it transports me out of the mental fog that builds up when I use my brain for single-track thinking for too long. Suddenly I feel both safe and alive. Fragrances become more perceptible, colors more vivid, distance more appreciable.

My beach walk on this particular day was no exception. A Friday at noon, I was at once reeling over a long workweek, and simultaneously grateful for the flexibility to step out of the office for a midday break.

Toes submerged in warm sand, we looked at each other, then to the left and right. Like Alice debating which of the “Eat Me” cookies to take, we discussed which direction in wonderland to walk in. To the right, we would find big boulders to climb; to the left, a long stretch of gentle shoreline culminating at a boardwalk pier. The choice was itself inconsequential, so long as we made a decision.

A salt-sprayed breeze covered my entire body, and we began to make our way towards the pier. 

The First Sand Dollar

Sometimes conversation flows easily and naturally on a beach walk. Other times not much needs to be said. Still other times, we’re primed to be on edge and must dance carefully around our topics, lest they turn into unproductive tirades. On this day, our connection flowed easily between pleasant conversation and contented silence, each weaving in and out of the other.

We walked down to the place where the beach becomes the ocean. Sun warming our faces and crisp 60 degree salt water lapping around our ankles, we moved slowly and leisurely along the shoreline towards the pier. 

Within a few dozen yards, Oli spotted the first sand dollar of the day. 

Time Traveling

There’s something about sand dollars that feel extraordinarily special to me. 

Perhaps my giddiness stems from elementary school memories of friends bringing in sand dollars to class that they had found over the weekend. What were these mysterious beauties? I had never seen sand dollars at the beach growing up. I didn’t know whether they were an animal or simply a strange clump of sand that had somehow glued together to form some sort of flower-imprinted coin. Not wanting to be the kid who asked stupid questions–and not having enough interest to look it up in the encyclopedia–I kept my curiosity to myself for many years, secretly regarding sand dollars with the same level of mystique as a unicorn or Big Foot.

Eventually, I did learn that sand dollars are animals, but that wasn’t until after college. I was fortunate to land a summer gig working in the education department at SeaWorld, where I had two jobs: (1) to supervise the different animal exhibits; and (2) to give speeches over the speaker system. The tide pool was my favorite exhibit because it was interactive in a way that the other exhibits weren’t. While there weren’t any sand dollars at the SeaWorld tidepool, it was filled with their cousins–anemones, urchins and sea stars. I spent hours showing kids how to receive a “hug” from sea urchins by gently placing a finger between their spines. I supervised folks as they rubbed their fingers along sticky anemone tentacles, watching as the flowery jelly-fish cousins recoiled in on themselves for protection.  I pulled sea stars out for families to show them how their bodies worked–their eye spots that helped them spot contrast in light, their tube feet that helped them move, their stomachs that came out of their bodies like a big pile of goo on their undersides so that they could feed.

It’s been years since my favorite summer job, and knowing this sort of trivia has not been helpful for me in any sort of measurable way. Instead, its impact is more subtle. It’s given me a different worldview on the ocean and its creatures. It’s the difference between knowing something and looking it up on Google. It’s possibly the reason why I fill with excitement when I see harbor seals splashing in the waves, or muscles clinging to rocks, or sand dollars on the shore.

A New Addition

Oli plucked up our newest addition from the sand and handed it over to me. I have a small collection of sand dollars from our many beach visits over the years, and each new addition feels extraordinarily special.

As I looked it over, I was flooded with appreciation for its beauty. A light purple color, this one had obviously died more recently, as it was not yet bleached white by the sun. As I looked down the beach, the shoreline was glassy and smooth – not another sand dollar in sight. The rarity of it felt immense. I laid it delicately in my open palm, gripping it just enough to protect it from the breeze, but lightly enough to preserve its perfect condition. 

We continued our stroll. The beach was empty except for other treasure hunters. With the tides low, we shared the zone with metal detectors and retired women carrying ziplock bags filled with assortments of beach finds. 

As we approached the pier, we noticed fragments of sand dollars all over the place. Every once and a while a full coin shape caught the attention of our periphery, but upon further inspection, it had large chips or flakes missing, making it an undesirable collectors item. Clearly, the competition was fierce, and it seemed like finding another sand dollar in good condition would be impossible.

The Second Sand Dollar

As we turned to walk back to the car, we stopped and faced the horizon for a moment of appreciation. As the tide lapped at our shins, we put our arms around each other and breathed deeply, grateful that life is sometimes so wonderfully and unassumingly perfect.

The waves pulled back toward the ocean, and the sand around us tumbled like a snow globe. We looked down to our feet and suddenly saw a flower pattern emerge from the sand, as if exposed through an archeological dig. Oli bent down and scooped up a most perfect medallion, an unchipped sand dollar. We marveled at its beauty and considered ourselves most fortunate to be blessed with not one, but two, sand dollars on our beach walk.

A new series of waves came into the shoreline. As they peeled back to the ocean, a fleet of flowers emerged from the sand. Like kids scrambling to collect candy from a burst pinata, we unearthed several more coins, all perfect in their condition.

“Holy cow!” I said. “They must live together in colonies off the shoreline, and when they die, the ocean must spit them up towards the shore!”

We spent another ten minutes letting the waves come in and out, keeping our eyes peeled for more flowers to be revealed from the sand. Soon we had collected as many as we could carry in our four hands, stacked together like a sleeve of cookies, about to burst out of our grip.

The Walk Back

We began our walk back to the car and counted our bounty. 22 in all. This was more than the total of my entire collection from the past several years.

The retired women in their tennis shoes and zip lock bags of beach goodies walked by us and locked eyes on our prizes as we passed them. The looks on their faces suggested they were amazed and curious about the secret to harvesting so many sand dollars. We laughed to each other knowing that we would have happily shared our tips had they made eye contact with us instead of staring down our goods.

“Wow,” I said. “I can’t believe that just happened.”

“Me neither,” said Oli. “I’m trying to figure out if that was luck or skill.”

“Well, we definitely got lucky that a colony of sand dollars lives right off the shore by the pier,” I thought out loud. “But taking advantage of the opportunity required some learning and skill on our part.”

“It’s funny how sometimes you go about life thinking that your future luck will be the same as the past, and that every sand dollar will feel rare and special. And then the next moment, life hands you so many sand dollars, you don’t know what to do with them all.”

We were deep in awe and appreciation.

As we approached the car, Oli spotted an older woman sitting by herself on some rocks, watching the waves come in and out. He walked towards her and spread out his hands. 

“Pick one!” He exclaimed. 

In an instant, her trepidation at a stranger approaching her turned into interest and excitement. She fanned through the coins like she was picking a book off a shelf, and held up the one she selected: the biggest, most symmetrical, and perfect of the bunch. Good for her, I thought. That was exactly the right one.

The Collection

When we got home, we washed the collection in fresh water and laid them out on the kitchen counter to admire. All different shapes, sizes, shades and ages.

I remembered back to a beach walk we had last season, where the shoreline was filled with live ones. When alive, San Diego sand dollars are a dark purple, and their undersides are filled with tiny spikes for moving and eating. I remember walking along the beach, picking them up and walking them back to the ocean, whispering to them that I loved them and that I hoped they would live a long and healthy life.

And here I was a year later, their calcium skeletons laid out on my kitchen counter. 

“I wonder how long sand dollars live,” I said with a reverent sigh. Now that encyclopedias are on my phone, I was able to easily answer the question. 6-10 years. Wow. 

We took turns picking up each one, turning it over in our hands, holding it up to the light to see how much sand was stuck inside of it. As we marveled at our new treasures, YouTube filled in our sand dollar knowledge gaps.

We learned that while sand dollars do burrow underneath the sand, they mostly live standing upright in large groups on the ocean floor, swaying in the water and catching algae and other organic material as water moves past them. They live right off the shoreline, and actually only burrow under the sand when the current becomes too intense. In fact, in order to withstand the turbulence of the currents, they fill their bodies with heavy particles of sand called magnetite, which weighs them down and helps them resist being uprooted by heavy flow.

“Wow,” said Oli, the son of an engineer. “I wonder if the sand particles inside their skeletons are mostly magnetite, and if so, I wonder if they’re magnetic.” 

He pulled out a strong magnet from his toolbox, turned the sand dollars upside down on the table (as if they were spinning tops), and hovered the magnet over the top of each one. Lo and behold, the sand dollars started moving and spinning under the magnet. It turns out, they are, in fact, filled with magnetite, and they are, in fact, ever so slightly magnetic because of it.

I remembered a piece of trivia from my SeaWorld days about echinoderms–the phylum that contains sea stars, urchins and sand dollars. While they are all capable of eating, moving and reproducing, they have no central nervous system. There’s no brain or computer or electrical current that’s coordinating all of their various activities. These creatures are fueled by a different type of intelligence, something I will never be able to fully imagine or understand, but that I can appreciate with a very deep reverence. 

For hours, we stayed and played with our sand dollars, as if we were children on Christmas morning.

The Lesson

As I crawled into bed that night, I felt totally and utterly clear and cleaned out. 

I marveled at how a moment in time can turn from regular to spectacular, from just-another to one-of-a-kind, from I’ll-forget-about-this-tomorrow to I’ll-remember-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life

It’s amazing how I don’t see those moments coming, how I can’t guess that they are on their way to me. And somehow, even as I type this, I know that more days like this are out there, pulling me towards their inevitable existence. And sure, there will be days in the meantime that are difficult to get through. But there is meaning on the other side, sometimes sneakily packaged as a sand dollar, ready to absolutely blow my mind.

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