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Port O'Connor couple find community in beachcombing (w/video)

By Sara Sneath
Feb. 23, 2014 at 11 p.m.
Updated Feb. 23, 2014 at 8:24 p.m.

Mike Burnett, 62, of Port O'Connor, displays his collection of items he's found from beachcombing in his garage. Burnett has been collecting and keeping items he's found on beaches since 1963.

Hundreds of sea beans, four functioning digital cameras, two Styrofoam pink flamingos and a dozen messages cast inside bottles into the ocean.

These are among the treasures found in Mike Burnett's personal beachcombing museum.

Burnett, 62, of Port O'Connor, has been collecting action figures and tropical drift seeds and fruit, known as sea beans, that wash up along the Gulf Coast since 1963. For almost 40 of those 50 years, Burnett thought he and his wife, Sam Burnett, were alone in their continuous hunt for beach treasures.

But in 1999, after coming to visit Port O'Connor, his wife's sister called to let the couple know she found a community of "drifters" on the Internet. In 2000, the couple went to their first International Sea-Bean Symposium, an annual event in Florida focused on sea beans and various other floating stuff, like Lego pieces that washed overboard a cargo ship in the Atlantic Ocean in 1997 and yellow duckies that spilled into the Pacific Ocean in 1992.

From the experience, Burnett learned he wasn't alone.

"I got out there, and there was a whole bunch of me's out there: girl me's and old me's and young me's," Burnett said of the symposium. "I got to trading. What we have wash up over here beanwise is different from what they have because of the way the currents are - we get stuff that they don't get."

About two years ago, Burnett began creating a beachcombing museum in his garage in Port O'Connor.

Burnett has found expensive research equipment, working digital cameras and other items with the potential to be cashed in for money. But what he enjoys most about beachcombing is the hunt.

"You run across a really rare bean, and you do a little dance so that the guys down on the beach know you got something really good," Burnett said.

Burnett's hobby has introduced him to people all over the word. In 2006, while on turtle patrol on Matagorda Island, Burnett found a message in a bottle from a French boy named Arthur.

Burnett and his wife used an Internet translation site to read the message and sent Arthur a response to the address he included in the letter. That was the same year that Burnett found an endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle nest with 120 eggs in it. Burnett wrote about the find in his letter to Arthur and included a local newspaper clipping along with his letter.

Arthur wrote back and said he wanted to patrol for endangered turtles like Burnett when he grew up and enclosed a colored picture of sea turtles.

The Burnetts also have met lifetime friends through the hobby, who they now spend holidays with and are so close they're like family, Burnett said.

Burnett still casually calls himself "a nut" when he talks about the hobby he shares with his wife. But just like the drifting tropical seeds that scatter on the Gulf Coast, many other "drifters" are out there.

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