6 Beachy Facts to Take to the Shore

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Heading for the coast this weekend? Be the talk of the sand dunes with these facts.

1. This Shell Is So Money!

Indigenous peoples historically used shells as cash, but they weren’t just grabbing handfuls of clams to buy groceries. From the 1st century CE onward, the currency that filled purses in Asia and the Pacific was the abandoned home of a small snail called the money cowry, prevalent in the Maldives. Its use spread throughout the world via trading and, in fact, shoppers still used it as late as the 19th century. In 1862, the king of Lagos swapped his African territory to the British for 1,200 bags of cowries a year.

2. R.I.P. Tide

Ben Kirchner 

Nobody thinks of surfing as an aristocratic pursuit, but in its early days, shredding waves was the sport of kings. For centuries, tribal chiefs in Hawaii got their pick of the island trees for crafting longboards, and the top beaches were off-limits to commoners. So it was only natural that when the future King Edward VIII, then the prince of Wales, visited Hawaii in 1920, locals taught him to hang ten. Images of Edward balancing on a board are the first known photos of a British surfer. Between the prince’s royal endorsement and British soldiers meeting surf-loving WWI allies, interest in hitting the waves crested. But since surfboards weren’t available at home, desperate Brits substituted coffin lids! One Cornish undertaker even started marketing his spare lids to would-be surfers at two shillings a pop. Unless zombie surfing suddenly takes off, this is one summer trend that won’t be making a comeback.

3. Salute Your Lifeguard

As public modesty relaxed in the early 20th century, Americans began flocking to the ocean. There was a terrible catch, though: Lots of them couldn’t swim, and the results were tragic. On a single day in San Diego in 1918, 13 swimmers drowned. Newport Beach lost 18 swimmers over the course of a weekend. All told, as many as 9,000 Americans were drowning each year.
Cities realized they needed to protect beachgoers. Some assigned special police officers to beaches or had citizens patrol the water in rowboats. Luckily, one man on the East Coast had an even better idea. In 1914, Wilbert E. Longfellow (not pictured) founded a lifesaving program with the American Red Cross to teach volunteers water rescue and resuscitation methods. Longfellow, a husky swimmer fondly known as “the Amiable Whale,” traveled the country training folks to be lifeguards and spreading the gospel of water safety. His efforts paid off; when Longfellow retired 33 years later, the drowning rate had dropped by nearly 50 percent. And as if that weren’t enough, he also made Baywatch possible!

4. Extreme Privacy

Christina Ung

The next time you’re lugging gear to the beach, be glad you’re not living in the 17th or 18th century. Back then, beachgoers used bathing machines to protect their modesty. Swimmers would step fully dressed into a horse-drawn cart topped with a hut. As the horse plodded out into the surf, the swimmer would change into his long-sleeved bathing suit. Only when the cart had reached a suitable distance from the shore would the swimmer emerge to frolic. When finished, he’d climb back into the cart and raise a flag to alert the horse’s driver he was ready to head in. As the cart approached the beach, the swimmer would change back into street clothes and emerge on the sand looking dapper. Was this system a lot of trouble? You bet! But it was a small price to pay to avoid baring an elbow.

5. Who Stole the Beach?

Justin Gabbard

For centuries, savvy beachgoers have foiled would-be thieves by hiding their wallets in their shoes. But what happens when the crooks get more ambitious? Jamaica faced this question in 2008 when 500 truckloads of sand from a planned tourist beach simply vanished. Somehow, the thieves were able to quietly excavate (and presumably sell) all that sand, either to a rival tourist beach or to builders who wanted to use the loot for construction.

Beach theft isn’t just a Jamaican problem. Crooks heisted an artificial beach in Hungary in 2007, and in 1989, a group of self-proclaimed “sand terrorists” took an Oregon town’s river beach “hostage” in exchange for, among other demands, the release of some spotted owls they claimed were being held in city hall, construction of a water slide on the riverfront, and a reversal of the town’s ban on nude sunbathing. Who knew “sand terrorists” was a synonym for “bored teenagers?”

6. Lego My House!

Just because hermit crabs live in other critters’ discarded digs doesn’t mean they’re not picky. Take Harry, a hermit crab that lives at Legoland in Windsor, England. In 2012, he was in the market for a new shell, so his keepers offered up a variety of sea and snail shells. But the discerning Harry spurned them all. Then one of the keepers had a brilliant idea: What if Harry just wanted a home that fit in with the neighborhood? The team built him a Lego shell, and Harry moved right in. Just goes to show you, even hermits like coordinating their outfits!

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.

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May 24, 2013 - 11:00am
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