Sphere Bliss

Jean Allsopp
Magical orbs from across the sea, glass fishing floats bring the Far East a little closer to home and work as classic coastal accessories on any shore.

Dick Carter discovered his first glass float one night in 1952. As he and his wife walked the coast near their Long Beach, Washington, cottage, they spotted the greenish orb hiding in a pile of beached bull kelp.

Dick, now 76, says that back then, they didn't even know what the buoyant ball really was. They did, however, know they had stumbled upon something special. "As far as I'm concerned, there can't be too many of these floats around here," he says, alluding to his vast collection. "In addition to looking great, they remind me of a simpler, wonderful time."

In Japan, for decades and perhaps centuries, these glass spheres served the same purposes as foam or wooden buoys―marking a community's lobster pots and fishing lines in the open sea.

Currents carry them across the Pacific, and in the Carters' house they've become decorative objects. Some spread across coffee tables or hang in macramé from ceiling beams, while others are clustered in corners, taking the place of leafy plants.

Many people associate the floats with Japanese and Korean fishermen, but some vintage samples hail from Europe, Russia, and America. Contemporary versions, handblown by artisans, honor the originals. Wherever the floats come from, their form (often spherical but sometimes shaped like pears or rolling pins) and colors (ranging from clear to watery blues and greens) make them ideal for coastal home accents. Reasonable prices, starting as low as $15 and often less than $100, make collecting them easy, too.

But the Carters didn't pay a thing for their floats. Since they spotted that first one 53 years ago, they've amassed more than 2,000, never straying more than two or three miles from home. On one banner night in 1968, they scored 368, filling the bed of their pickup truck with glimmering globes of glass. Another afternoon, they found what Dick considers to be the "big prize"―two honeydew-size floats, fused in the shape of a dumbbell.

While the number of newly beached floats near Dick's Washington home has dwindled in recent years, the orbs still appear frequently on Vancouver Island's rocky beaches. At Chesterman Beach, near the renowned Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, British Columbia, collector Barry Campbell says he's almost guaranteed to find two or three floats after every winter storm.

Barry started collecting in 1965; today he owns around 250. Like Dick, Barry has incorporated the floats into just about every aspect of his home's decor. Periwinkle balls adorn a bath; larger green ones grace the coffee table. For him, the attraction is the unknown. "Every time one washes ashore, you ask yourself, 'Where in Japan did this come from? How long was it at sea?'" he says. "It's really remarkable."

Oceanographers say currents carry many of the items east from Japanese harbors until they're trapped in a giant floating trash heap in the Pacific between Oregon and Hawaii. Named the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, this mass spins continually, growing larger every day. During storms, southwesterly winds push chunks of detritus toward North America, sending the floats toward shore.

This winter, stronger southwesterly winds will move more of the Gyre toward the West Coast. Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer, predicts that the conditions will yield a gaggle of glass balls unlike any in history. Happy hunting.

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