Invisible Beach: The Mystery of The Tags Is Solved

By John Vonderlin

So, while I now knew where the tags had come from, I didn’t understand why they continued to show up over such a long time.

Had they been floating around out there all this time, with a few occasionally being washed ashore at this beach? That seemed unlikely. It was only when we noticed that at the far northern stretch of the beach, just above the gravel bank that had the colorful pebbles in it, that there was a sizable pile of wrack mixed with gravel and sand, that things started to come clear.

Wrack is seaweed pulled loose from its mooring and piled high on the beach by storms or the high tide wave action. In the top layer of the wrack we found a few partially concealed tags, as well as other litter. Digging around we found a few more.

A light bulb went off,

It seemed fairly obvious that the tags had floated in, become buried in the wrack and gravel pile, then as high tide wave action had eaten at the pile over the weeks, the tags that had been buried were being intermittently released, to eventually move further south, where we had been finding them. We considered the mystery solved.

I’ve attached photos of my collection of tags, mainly gathered from Invisible Beach. Some however were subsequently found as far south as Bradley Beach, at the Santa Cruz/San Mateo County line. The next picture is of the last one found nearly two years later, far to the north at Tunitas Beach.


The Story of 'The Contender' by John Vonderlin

Intrigued, I did an Internet search and discovered the sad truth behind their presence on the beach. Here’s the short story of the ill-fated boat, “The Contender.”

From: District 11 Public Affairs Press Release

“Coast Guard Station Golden Gate with the help of Good Samaritan vessels rescued 28 people today after their vessel sank five miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“At approximately 2:30 p.m. today, the Contender, a 49-foot chartered fishing vessel, home ported in Emeryville, Calif., placed an emergency radio call to Coast Guard Group San Francisco to report they were taking on water off of Ocean Beach. A passenger onboard the vessel also placed a 911 call from his cell phone to the Coast Guard to report they were sinking.

“At 2:45 p.m., two 47-foot motor lifeboat crews from Station Golden Gate arrived on scene to find 28 people in the water wearing life jackets. With the response and assistance of several Good Samaritan vessels, all 28 people were rescued from the surf and transported to Station Golden Gate.

“The 24 rescued passengers and four crewmembers from the Contender received medical treatment for hypothermia at Station Golden Gate. One individual did not survive.”


"Invisible Beach:" Where We Meet 'The Contender'

The next time I returned with a beachcombing friend it was a different story. While we didn’t find another sealed packet of the cards, we did find singletons here and there. We started making a game of it, calling out the numbers of the cards as we picked them up.

Every new number became a source of glee. Each repeated number’s excitement was modulated by its common-ness. Having scoured clean the beach and the vegetation above the swash zone, we figured our game was over, but kept our treasures as momentoes.

How wrong we were.

For some mysterious reason, the tags continued to show up at the beach in the following weeks. While the quantity encountered and the occurrence of new numbers decreased significantly, almost every trip produced a few.


"Invisible Beach": Where We Meet 'The Contender'

By John Vonderlin


(Image: John Vonderlin’s collection of tags found at ‘Invisible Beach.’)

Having been a Natural Wonder collector, photographer and admirer for years, it seemed logical to create dissonant art by combining objects from my collection with some of the disturbing and odd things I was finding. But that came later. Here’s what I consider the start.

My love affair with the non-buoyant debris of Invisible Beach, actually had its roots in the day I encountered some unusual flotsam there.

Flotsam is floating debris from a shipwreck, the more common sibling of jetsam, which is material thrown overboard to lighten the load of a boat in distress.

Viewing the flotsam, a plastic wrapped bundle of fish tags from a boat named, “The Contender,” as nothing more then odd beach litter, I picked it up and put it in my litter bag.

As I proceeded northward towards the pebbles and driftwood I was seeking, I found many more of the loose, business-card-sized, plastic-like fish tags with a variety of different numbers on them. I remember entertaining momentarily the idea of trying to contact the boat’s owner and complain about their carelessness. Instead I threw them all in a trash can before I drove away.