Monday, December 5, 2011

Tsunami debris needs to be treated with respect

Seattle oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer is an expert on flotsam, jetsam, and where a message in a bottle is likely to wash ashore. Dave Ingrham photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 14, 2011


In rough seas, the Coast Guard patrol vessel Sooke Post spotted an overturned boat about to be dashed onto rocks.

The battered craft was towed to Prince Rupert, where it was learned the damaged craft was the Kazu Maru. The dinghy had last been seen 18 months earlier when its owner, Kazukio Sakamoto, a retired civil servant, left for a day’s fishing. He was lost, presumed drown.

He had gone to sea from Owase, Japan. By strange coincidence, Owase and Prince Rupert were sister cities.

With the widow’s permission, the restored boat was placed on display at the local cannery museum before being moved to a waterfront park where it now stands as a memorial to sailors lost at sea. The widow and dignitaries from Japan attended the ceremony.

The story of the drifting dinghy is a lesson, as an entire fleet of Kazu Marus — and much, much more — is on the way to Vancouver Island.

The tsunami that devastated Japan in March washed to sea entire villages — cars, boats, houses.

Some of it sank. Much of it floated.

Some bits and pieces might already have washed up on the island’s rugged and isolated west coast.

Scientists predicted the debris would begin washing up on North America’s Pacific shore in late 2013, or early 2014.

Now, a prominent oceanographer recognized for his trailblazing work in studying the contents of spilled cargo containers — from Nike sneakers to a bobbing bunch of yellow rubber duckies — believes the first arrivals from the disaster are lapping at our coast.

Curt Ebbesmeyer, 68, of Seattle, is asking fishermen, holidayers, and beachcombers to be on the alert for items from the disaster. He urges any finds to be reported and recorded with photographs as an aid to further scientific studies on ocean currents. He is also calling on people to not treat what what washes up as garbage, or as a souvenir.

“When people find something, it isn’t just debris,” he said. “It’s a memento for Japanese families and their loved ones. It needs to be treated with great respect.”

Anyone finding tsunami debris is encouraged to contact the retired scientist through his Beachcombers’ Alert website at, a not-for-profit site dedicated to tracking flotsam and jetsam.

“Don’t just burn it as debris. Get it, sequester it, go through it for any remains. Test it for radioactivity. Then think about disposal.”

Officials estimate 16,000 were killed in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami, while another 4,500 remain missing, likely swept to sea.

Earlier this year, he said of the aftermath: “If you put a major city through a trash grinder and sprinkle it on the water, that’s what you’re dealing with.” The debris field is as expansive as the state of California.

Scientists made their original prediction based on estimations of wind pull and ocean motion caused by the swift Kuroshio Current off Japan. Mr. Ebbesmeyer, who jokingly describes his expertise as driftology, has found that larger items act like sailboats in the wind.

Four years ago, two beachcombers discovered a red, 10-metre-long fishing buoy bobbing in the breakers off Copalis, Wash. The Japanese lettering gave a hint as to its origins. Turns out the buoy belonged to a fishing co-operative at Ginoza, a village in Okinawa. It had come unmoored during a super typhoon, crossing the vast ocean in 245 days.

The oceanographer asked his colleague Jim Ingraham to simulate a transpacific trajectory on a computer program known as OSCURS (Ocean Surface CURrent Simulator). The results show large debris can move much faster across the Pacific than previously thought.

“Twenty miles a day, 5,000 miles, eight months,” Mr. Ebbesmeyer said of the tsunami debris. “Eight months from March is November.”

The red buoy has been put on display in Ocean Shores, Wash. The Okinawan village mayor, two fishermen, and the consul general for Japan based in Seattle attended a ceremony at which the buoy, worth $30,000US, was presented as a gift. As well, the two communities became sister cities.

As tsunami debris reaches these shores, Mr. Ebbesmeyer said it is important to remember the reaction of the Japanese to the recovery and preservation of the red buoy and the Kaza Maru.

“Multiply that by a thousand times all along the B.C. coast,” he said. “Multiply each of those thousand times by three people who are going to want to come over to pay last respects.”

Cast your eyes to the sea. What the ocean swallows, it sometimes spits back.

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