How to Spot a Sand Dollar on the Beach

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Searching for Sand Dollars

During our Kiawah vacations, when we were a young couple in the 80’s, we used to comb the beaches endlessly for sand dollars.  Shawn’s dad would wake us up around 5 AM and we’d bike out to the east end of the beach with dad in the lead.  He always planned these excursions for times when it was low tide and hopefully the moon was still out.

We’d park our bikes at the end of the Jack Stay cul-de-sac – because that was as far as the roads went back then – and walk the beach to the far east end and back again. It was such a beautiful experience, walking the beach so early in the morning, and watching the sunrise while on our search.

We’d be simply thrilled when we found a sand dollar! The perfectly round, starfish-patterned creatures were our treasures from the sea.  Experiences like this are never forgotten. And I hope you can also experience this with your own specially-selected treasure-hunting crew!

Learning About Sand Dollars

After a while, I learned some things about sand dollars, their physiology, the best way to find them, how to tell if they’re alive, and how to preserve them.

The first thing that everyone needs to know is that you should never take a living sand dollar away from the beach. Sand dollars can’t live out of the salty wet sand for long and it is illegal in the state of South Carolina. 

If you’re not an expert, trying to determine whether a sand dollar is alive or dead is confusing. Here are some helpful hints:

Is That Sand Dollar Alive or Dead?

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  • Live sand dollars are brown to purple in color, while dead sand dollars are white (They are actually the skeletons of sand dollars, called tests). 
  • Live sand dollars have spines that cover the undersides of their bodies. These spines resemble fur. If you see these spines, the sand dollar is almost certainly alive. You may even see them moving, which will confirm it. These spines fall off shortly after they die.
  • Live sand dollars secrete a harmless substance called echinochrome. If you can’t figure out whether the sand dollar is alive, hold it gently in your hand for about a minute and then check your fingers. If your fingers show a trace of yellow, the sand dollar is still alive.

Now, How to Find a Sand Dollar

First of all, it’s all in the timing. You’ll have the best success if you go early in the morning and at low tide. If there was a storm the night before, you’ve hit the sand dollar search trifecta! But even without a storm, you can still find these treasures. 

Start at the edge of the high-tide line. Look for four holes, three in the pattern of a smile and one at the top. There may be a bubble of sand between the smile and the top. 

Gently dig with your fingers until you find your sand dollar. Carefully lift him out of the sand, taking care to keep him wet. 

Here’s a demonstration: How to Spot a Sand Dollar

Alternatively, you could also try simply wading into the ocean and find them by shuffling your feet in the sand!

Now, spend a few moments enjoying your new friend. Take its picture! Or maybe a selfie to commemorate your friendship. And then gently return it to it’s rightful place. 

Remember, every time you return any sea creature to his own home, there’s a better chance of another encounter next time.

What are Sand Dollars, Anyway?

Sand dollars are actually fascinating. They are echinoids, or spiny-skinned creatures and closely related to sea lilies, sea cucumbers, sea biscuits, starfish, and sea urchins.

Do Sand Dollars Have Any Predators?

Not really. Sand dollars have very few known predators, thanks to their hard skeletons and few edible body parts. The only enemies they have to be aware of are seagulls, starfish, crabs, octopi, and a few species of fish. 

How Long do Sand Dollars Live?

Believe it or not, they usually live between 6-10 years! As with trees, one can determine a sand dollar’s age by counting the growth rings on the plates of the test (remember, that’s the word for their skeletons). 

How and What do Sand Dollars Eat?

Sand dollars have an interesting method of eating. They use their spines, helped along by cilia (tiny hairs) on their body surfaces to move food particles along the body to a central mouth on its bottom side. And what do they eat? A pretty wide variety of items, actually! Their diet consists of crustacean larvae, tiny copepods like plankton, diatoms, algae, kelp, and detritus (dead particulate organic material). They are omnivorous and have been known to eat larvae of their own species. It takes on average 48 hours for them to digest their food.

That Pretty Petal Pattern Serves a Purpose

And you know that lovely petal pattern on their bodies? Those are five sets of pores that move water and gas in and out and allow for the sand dollar’s movement. When the water is still, they may stand on one end, with the other end buried in the sand. But when the water gets rough, they lie flat or burrow under the sand to hold their ground.

Do Sand Dollars Live by Themselves or in Groups?

They are definitely not solitary creatures! Sand dollars live in groups of up to 625 individuals in a space of just one square yard. 

Are Sand Dollars Known by Any Other Names?

These little critters go by a whole host of names in other parts of the world. They’re called “sand cake,” “sea biscuit,” and “cake urchin,” or, in New Zealand, “sea cookie” and “snapper biscuit.” In South Africa, it’s often called a “pansy shell” for its flower-like pattern.

Can I Take a Sand Dollar off the Beach if I Know It’s Dead?

Yes, if you’re absolutely certain that the sand dollar is dead, you may take it.

How Can I Preserve My Sand Dollar(s)?

Carefully! Sand dollar skeletons are very delicate and can easily crumble, so you need to do everything you can to strengthen it. 

First things first. When you get the sand dollars home, rinse them several times in freshwater until the water runs clear, then soak them for 15 minutes in a solution of 70% water and 30% bleach solution. Let them air dry completely.

Then it’s time for some arts and crafts! Once the sand dollars are completely dry, you’ll want to paint them carefully with a mixture of half water and half white glue. This will make them less likely to break. 

If you’d like to add even further protection, try spraying acrylic varnish or shellac. This should make them even stronger than the glue mixture and protect your beautiful sand dollars for a long, long time. 

Kiawah Island Getaways Welcomes You!

As always, all of us here at Kiawah Island Getaways are so glad you’re here! If there’s anything at all that you need while you’re here, please just let us know. We’re truly happy to help in any way we can. 

Here’s a little secret – we love to talk about this island! If you ever need a recommendation, have a question, or just want to talk about the “good old days”, we’re all about it! We’ll bend your ear as long as you’d like. 

When it’s time to make Kiawah Island your part-time or full-time home, our compassionate and knowledgeable agents are here to help you through that sometimes confusing process with ease. And with our commission rate now capped at 5%, there’s no better time to make your Kiawah Island purchase. 

Whether you’re buying, selling, or renting, you already have a friend on Kiawah Island.

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