Floating Treasure

Their numbers are dwindling. It’s a marvel that they can still be found at all. Beginning around 1840, several countries began to produce and use glass floats for fishing nets and fishing lines. Japanese fishermen started using glass floats around 1910. Eventually the beautiful glass balls and “rolling pins” would be replaced by cheaper and more durable — though far less charming — aluminum, plastic, and styrofoam, as the transition to hydraulic winches for nets and lines took its toll on glass floats.

While still in use, some glass floats were inevitably lost at sea (making them flotsam). Others were deliberately tossed overboard (making them jetsam) when the boats were laden with catch. Amazingly, to this day, these flotsam and jetsam are still out there.

Once adrift, a glass float faces many perils in the vast Pacific. It might be dashed on a rocky coast. Or it might safely wash up on one beach and get washed back out to sea, only to precariously land on another — countless times. A float might get stuck in the North Pacific Gyre or the Subpolar Gyre for eons. Or it might repeatedly travel clockwise around the Pacific — taking about seven years to complete one circumnavigation — as it is swept along the Kuroshio Japanese Current, North Pacific Current, California Current, and North Equatorial Current for decades, only making landfall after a rare convergence of very specific oceanic conditions.

I found this beauty on a foul morning. A strong west wind will blow in Velella velella — or “By-the-Wind-Sailors” — a cosmopolitan genus of free-floating hydrozoans (jellyfish) that live on the surface of the open ocean. The arrival of velella is usually accompanied by debris, signaling promising glass ball hunting.


This float is the size of a large grapefruit. It was half-covered with small goose-neck barnacles. A quick and gentle cleaning revealed a matte finish, indicating that this intrepid traveler spent much time rolling around on sandy or gravel beaches without breaking. Kanji marks on the seal on the bottom tell that it is of Japanese origin. That it has no seams means it is an older variety that was hand-blown without a mould.  Many Japanese floats are blue-green because they were made from recycled sake bottles. Long exposure to the sun can alter the color. The bubbles in the glass are the result of a rapid recycling process.


This Japanese glass ball is probably quite a bit older than I am. It is hard to believe that every day of my life this little seafarer was out there — somewhere — covering countless miles and navigating untold hazards.

Its life, like ours, is fragile. Yet miraculously we survive.