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.

By Matt Villano
November 16, 2004
Jean Allsopp

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 pileof beached bull kelp.

Dick, now 76, says that back then, they didn't even know whatthe buoyant ball really was. They did, however, know they hadstumbled upon something special. "As far as I'm concerned, therecan't be too many of these floats around here," he says, alludingto his vast collection. "In addition to looking great, they remindme of a simpler, wonderful time."

In Japan, for decades and perhaps centuries, these glass spheresserved the same purposes as foam or wooden buoys―marking acommunity'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 coffeetables or hang in macramé from ceiling beams, while others areclustered in corners, taking the place of leafy plants.

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

But the Carters didn't pay a thing for their floats. Since theyspotted that first one 53 years ago, they've amassed more than2,000, never straying more than two or three miles from home. Onone banner night in 1968, they scored 368, filling the bed of theirpickup truck with glimmering globes of glass. Another afternoon,they found what Dick considers to be the "big prize"―twohoneydew-size floats, fused in the shape of a dumbbell.

While the number of newly beached floats near Dick's Washingtonhome has dwindled in recent years, the orbs still appear frequentlyon Vancouver Island's rocky beaches. At Chesterman Beach, near therenowned Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, British Columbia, collectorBarry Campbell says he's almost guaranteed to find two or threefloats after every winter storm.

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

Oceanographers say currents carry many of the items east fromJapanese harbors until they're trapped in a giant floating trashheap in the Pacific between Oregon and Hawaii. Named the NorthPacific Subtropical Gyre, this mass spins continually, growinglarger every day. During storms, southwesterly winds push chunks ofdetritus toward North America, sending the floats toward shore.

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