Debris Headed to a Beach Near You? Sailors Track Tsunami's Destruction from Japan to US
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Discovering Tsunami Debris
“It’s a whale,” shouts someone from the foredeck. I jump out of my bunk, grab my camera and rush to the bow of the ship. Seeing anything other than garbage at sea is a major event. But as we drew closer on a calm ocean, the object we spotted was not organic. Bobbing in faint swell was the bow of boat, clearly marked with Japanese characters. We took the sails down and prepared to dive.
In the water, the rest of the boat was visible. Swimming 1,500 miles from Japan, in 10,000 feet of water observing an object that was ripped from its mooring haunted me to the core. Underwater, perhaps 50 fish had populated the boat, using it as shelter from predators. One species was a coral dwelling type, not an open ocean fish and it shouldn’t have been there at all. In the water, I could see the rope that was torn from the bow cleat when the wave hit. Where the other two thirds of the ship had gone was anyone’s guess. Only a few barnacles had inhabited the hull and fouling growth was minimal. “It’s likely that this boat was unattended when the tsunami hit,” said Dr. Eriksen, observing the frayed rope, piecing together, forensically what had happened. Both of us took solace in the likelihood that this object wasn’t connected to a human when it was ripped out to sea. Someone had lost a boat, but most likely, not a life. Using the registration number on the boat, broadcast through NHK, a Japanese news agency, we’re still trying to locate the owner.
Other objects we discovered that we positively identified as tsunami debris were a spare tire from a light truck, still inflated, never used. Most likely it had floated from the back of a truck when the wave withdrew. We also found a section of traditional Japanese flooring, called a Tatami mat. The original Tatami mats consist of woven reeds, straw interior and a cloth border. This modern version had Styrofoam added for cushioning or traction. This latter discovery hit the crew hard. This was someone’s home, an artifact that supported the movements of a household and all of us wondered the same thing: was anyone standing there when …?
I have now traveled to four of the five subtropical oceanic gyres or garbage patches as they’re called. I’ve pulled out tampon applicators, buckets, shotgun shells, syringes, lighters, bottle caps, toy soldiers—you name it—if it’s plastic and it floats, it’s out there. On this trip, we found a bottle cap, possibly from the tsunami that had sea anemones living in it—in the middle of the ocean! But the vast majority of garbage present isn’t there because of a tsunami. It’s there because of small, seemingly insignificant habits by individuals, you and me, that together as a world population have a tsunami’s effect worth of pollution.
The initial findings of the expedition posit this: the wave of tsunami debris won’t be a single event, it will be a slow steady trickle for years and years. Offshore of North America is a dominant phenomenon called the California Current. This current flows from north to south, keeping most of the ocean born plastic garbage off US beaches. When strong westerly flows occur, the ocean’s deposit is made on our sand, tsunami and otherwise. But finding a boat 2,500 miles east at the same time a dock washes up on a beach in Oregon means this: no one can really predict where it all is, or when it’s all going to land. Like plastic debris, some tsunami debris will spend years if not decades in the ocean before it’s spit out.