The first appearance of the term in print was in Herman Melville's Omoo (1847). It described a population of Europeans who lived in South Pacific islands, "combing" the beach and nearby water for flotsam, jetsam, or anything else they could use or trade. If a beachcomber became totally dependent upon coastal fishing for his sustenance, or abandoned his original culture and set of values, then the term was synonymous with a criminal, a drifter, or a bum. But the vast majority of beachcombers were unemployed sailors like Herman Melville in Typee, or Harry Franck in Vagabonding Around the World. Today a beachcomber is most likely a person with a metal detector, combing a public beach for lost coins, jewelry, or watches.
There had always been a small number of castaways in the South Pacific since the earliest Spanish explorers, but the numbers increased dramatically in the early 19th century. A few beachcombers were English convicts who had been transported to Australia and escaped from the penal colonies there. But most were sailors, particularly whalemen, who had jumped ship. It is estimated that in 1850 there were over 2000 beachcombers throughout Polynesia and Micronesia. After enduring a voyage of danger and hardship, it was not uncommon for a few whalemen to desert a ship when it arrived in Tahiti or the Marquesas and reside, least for a while, in the South Sea paradises of Polynesia. If another beachcomber was ready to take his place in order to get home, the captain might let the disgruntled crewman go; otherwise, the captain would offer the natives a reward to find and return the deserter, and deduct the reward, plus interest, from the deserter's pay. In other words, the deserter, if caught, would end up working the entire voyage for no pay at all, or even return home in debt to his employers. In Typee, Melville deserted, not once but twice, before signing on as a crewman on a Navy frigate, without fear of repercussion.
Some beachcombers traded between tribes, and between tribes and visiting ships. Some lived on the rewards for deserters, or found replacement crewmen either through persuasion or through shanghaiing. Many, such as David Whippey, also served as mediators between hostile native tribes as well as between natives and visiting ships. Whippey deserted his ship in 1820 and lived among the cannibal Fijis for the rest of his life. The Fijis would sometimes capture the crew of a stranded ship for ransom, and eat them if they resisted. Whippey would try to rescue them but sometimes found only roasted bones. Ultimately he became British Consul to Fiji, and left many descendants among the islands.
In Uruguay, the term has been naturalized into the Spanish form Bichicóme, and refers to poor or lower-class people. The Spanish form also draws on the similarities to the Spanish bicho (small animal) and comer (eat), making it difficult for Uruguayans to see the word's Anglo origin. Similarly, the term has entered the Greek slang through sailors as "pitsikómis" (πιτσικόμης).
In archaeology the beachcombing lifestyle is associated with coastal shell-middens, that sometimes accumulate over many hundreds if not thousands of years. Evidence at Klasies River Caves in South Africa, and Zuli Gulf in Eritrea, show that a beachcombing option is one of the earliest activities separating anatomically modern human Homo sapiens from the ancestral subspecies of Homo erectus.
In a general sense and in modern times, however, the most common use of the term "beachcombing" is as a descriptive word for the recreational activity of looking for and finding various curiosities that have washed in with the tide. These items include seashells, sea beans (drift seeds), sea glass (beach glass), driftwood, lumber, plastics, and all manner of things lost or discarded by seagoing vessels and fishing activities. Books have been written to aide the identification of these occasionally strange and well-traveled items. Sophisticated recreational beachcombers use knowledge of how storms, geography, ocean currents, and seasonal events determine the arrival and exposure of rare finds.
Both the recreational and utilitarian aspects of beachcombing or “wrecking” were celebrated in the film The Wrecking Season, an award-winning film that portrays playwright Nick Darke’s passion for beachcombing the coast of Cornwall, UK.