Metal detectors find treasures, trash and everything in between at local beaches

Members of the Hampton Roads Recovery Society operate as lost-and-found units in sand and surf

Members of the Hampton Roads Recovery Society comb Buckroe Beach during a group hunt in April. (HNNDailyphoto/Courtesy of HRRS)
Members of the Hampton Roads Recovery Society comb Buckroe Beach during a group hunt in April. (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of HRRS)

Somehow, Gina Street’s metal detector seems to be a magnet for dental grills and Batman figurines.

Her husband, Jim, once found a 1969 class ring that he returned to its owner in Atlanta after a three-month search. Jim also discovered the handle of a Samurai sword in the water at Buckroe Beach in Hampton.

Just last month, Jack Rezabek dug up a gold, diamond and ruby ring at Buckroe, to go with a bag of tent stakes and a new pile of coins that added to his 39-year total of more than 50,000. And the ring doesn’t match his most valuable find: a $4,875 platinum and diamond band buried at Yorktown Beach.

Members of the Hampton Roads Recovery Society, or HRRS, have unearthed pocket knives, bullets, pieces of old foreign coins, historic military coat buttons and medals, eye glasses and even handcuffs. They’ve returned so many class rings that they’ve lost count.

“One ring had been missing for 45 years,” says Barry Merrill, president of the Peninsula-based club. “For us, it’s all about the thrill of the hunt, not keeping the stuff. All your eyes can see is sand, but there’s this whole other hidden world.”

What lies beneath?

HRRS has about 50 active members who comb local beaches with a variety of metal detectors. The club meets each month to showcase people’s finds; it also hosts monthly group hunts and two annual competitions with pre-buried tokens and prizes.

Most lost items are an inch or two beneath the sand, although the range for a typical detector is about six inches. The most valuable items, especially jewelry, tend to be in the water where people have been swimming. Detectors can pick up something as small as the back of an earring, which can result in maddeningly long digs.

Predictably, coins, bottle caps, jewelry, keys, fishing baits and small toys are among the common finds. The amount is surprising, though: in a single month, Jim Street netted 16 rings while Gina dug up 11 (along with a cellphone and, of course, two Batman toys). There are always head-scratchers, too.

“We’ve found fabric sofa buttons,” Merrill laughs. “Why would those possibly be at the beach?”

HRRS member Jim Street of Yorktown showcased this month's worth of finds at a club meeting in July. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
HRRS member Jim Street of Yorktown showcased this month’s worth of finds at a club meeting in July. Street has been hunting at beaches for 30-some years. (Alison Johnson/Southside Daily)

Sometimes, club members respond to specific requests for help, made by email, on Facebook or in person on the beach. If an owner is unknown, they do their best to find that person via online posts and searches, classified ads or, in the case of class rings, yearbook research or calls to class officers.

Two years ago, Cheryl Baker helped a young graduate of Texas A&M University find her class ring at Ocean View Beach in Norfolk.

Cheryl Baker of Newport News proudly displays a picture of a young college graduate with the lost class ring that Baker uncovered at a Norfolk beach. Baker has been metal detecting for about 15 years. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
Cheryl Baker of Newport News proudly displays a picture of a young college graduate with the lost class ring that Baker uncovered at a Norfolk beach. Baker has been metal detecting for about 15 years. (Alison Johnson/Southside Daily)

“She was crying, she was so happy,” says Baker, who still keeps a picture of the beaming woman. “It was such an amazing feeling.”

As for Jack Rezabek’s priciest ring, he had no such luck and eventually sold it to another club member for a bargain $2,000.

Protecting the environment

Members of the nonprofit club, founded in 1986, say they hunt for the element of surprise, as well as the fresh air, exercise, friendships and an overall love of beaches. They often carry out buckets of trash, including dangerous items such as syringes and glass shards.

“I like that I can recycle all the twist ties, bolts, nails and bobby pins now,” notes Rezabek, whose hobby began with the discovery of a dime on St. Patrick’s Day of 1979.

Metal detectors also are careful to follow local ordinances and refill any holes they create.

“We are good for the beaches,” Jim Street says. “Our goal is to clean them up and work with people to find what they’ve lost. You’re never going to get rich metal detecting.”

Jack Rezabek of Hampton hopes to reunite this ring, which he found in June at Buckroe Beach, with its owner. Alison Johnson/HNNDaily
Jack Rezabek of Hampton hopes to reunite this ring, which he found in June at Buckroe Beach, with its owner. (Alison Johnson/HNNDaily)

As for overall advice to beachgoers, Merrill has two big tips: don’t walk barefoot, and don’t bring any valuable or sentimental items (or remove teeth grills, unless perhaps Gina Street is around).

“We’ll help as much as we can,” Merrill says, “but that sand can pile up fast.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.