You don’t need to be a seasoned beachcomber to find sand dollars or sea biscuits around New York Harbor. You just need to spend some time along the edge of the ocean.
Winter and early spring are perfect times to search an ocean beach for sand dollars. Storms seem to be more numerous and intense during this period. An angry ocean with high waves crashing on the beach will easily throw relics of the sea onto the high tide line of a beach, including empty shells of sand dollars.
The Rockaways, Breezy Point or Sandy Hook down to Long Branch are three good places to start. Bundle up and start walking slowly along the edge of a winter’s beach.
First, you’re not looking for live sand dollars, but for a critter’s empty exoskeleton or test. It’s this sun-bleached whitish skeleton that beachcombers are searching for, sometimes tinged with brown or green shades, but always with a distinct five petal-like pattern.
Sand dollars get their name, because their skeletons look like unique coins. In some places they are also called sea biscuits, since the shells resemble small English crackers.
Sand dollars are real-life breathing animals, related to sea urchins and sea stars. In life, its outer skeleton is covered by velvet-textured spines, which are covered with very small hairs known as cilia. By moving the cilia and spines, sand dollars are able to move across sandy or muddy areas of the ocean. Cilia will also help drive food, such as tiny bits of plankton and detritus, into its mouth, which is located on the bottom of its body at the center of the petal-like pattern.
A living sand dollar. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_dollar
Dead individuals are found with their empty test devoid of all velvety skin and cilia. They are often bleached white by sunlight.
Look for sand dollar skeletons where there are long lines of shells and pebbles. They may be mixed in and hidden from view. Gaze closely, as the color of a sand dollar may be darker than the shells on the beach if still wet or bright white if dried. Early morning and during low tide are ideal times to scan the shore before a beach gets busy with people. Keep in mind, though, shells are fragile and often break apart or blend in extremely well with the dull gray color of sand.
Yes, sand dollars really do exist in ocean waters near New York Harbor. The species known as the common sand dollar (Echinarachnius parma) is the most prevalent. Another recognized sand dollar is the Keyhole Sand Dollar. It has five small slit-like holes on its test that resemble keyholes. While beachcombers on Long Island in the past occasionally found this species, it’s now primarily a southern species found south of Cape Hatteras.
If you discover a sand dollar that is brownish and covered with short, dark, fur-like spines, the animal is still alive and should be returned to the sea. Mature sand dollars have few predators and can live up to ten years.
To preserve a sand dollar, rinse it several times in fresh water, and then soak it for 15 minutes in water & bleach solution. When a sand dollar is dry, carefully paint it with a mixture that is half water and half white glue. The glue solution will make the shell less likely to break. Your beautiful sand dollar that you found near New York Harbor will last a long time if treated with care.