Lost Sea Cargo: Beach Bounty or Junk?

Janice Podsada
June 19, 2001
As you read this, more than 50,000 Nike tennis shoes are circling the
globe like a convoy of tiny striped canoes.

but this flotilla of
footwear is hardly alone at sea. It's been joined by thousands of Tommy
Pickles cartoon heads, plastic turtles, rubber ducks, 3 million Lego
pieces and, at last report, 34,000 hockey gloves.

All this stuff and more is bob, bob, bobbing to a beach near you, said Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer.

This month, Nike Cross Trainers are expected to wash up on Everett's beaches in Washington State, after falling into the Pacific Ocean in December 1999. This weekend will be a good time to comb local beaches, as low tides of more than minus three feet (one meter) are predicted.

But be patient—some items won't wash ashore for another ten years, said Ebbesmeyer, who's mapped Puget Sound from Tacoma to Whidbey Island since 1966.

Each year, manufacturers around the world ship more than 100 million containers—each the size of a semi-truck—across the seven seas.

Gumball dispensers, doll heads, and Beanie Babies stitched and glued in China sail across the Pacific Ocean to U.S. ports. Made-in-Hungary frocks and Pez candies travel 10th class across the Atlantic on container ships, which carry on average 4,500 containers.

But not all of them will reach port.

Every year, more than 10,000 containers fall overboard and spill their cargo into the ocean. Storms are often to blame.

An 8-foot by 40-foot container (2.4-meter by 12.2-meter), which can carry up to 58,000 pounds (26,000 kilograms) of cargo, might hold 10,000 shoes, 17,000 hockey gloves, or a million pieces of Lego.

Ebbesmeyer and his partners at Evans and Hamilton, Inc., a Seattle firm, design and manufacture instruments that measure ocean currents. The company is mapping north Puget Sound for a King County project that will locate a wastewater treatment plant in Snohomish County.

Lots of Cool Stuff Gets Lost at Sea

If you didn't land a pair of Nikes in 1990, when 80,000 Nikes tumbled into the Pacific Ocean, don't despair.

This year, beachcombers may find good-as-new 1999 Nike Cross Trainers along the shores of Washington and Oregon and Puget Sound beaches.

In February, some Nikes drifted into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This summer they're expected to wash up near Everett.

Only trouble is, beachcombers will have to find the mates, because Nike didn't tie the laces together.

The sneakers were lost at sea when the container ship P&O Nedlloyd Auckland encountered a hurricane mid-Pacific. Heavy rolling threw a dozen 40-foot-long (12-meter) containers overboard, two filled with Nike shoes.

Beach Junk Serves as Ready-Made Markers

Until 1990, Ebbesmeyer dropped buoys, drift cards, and markers into the sea to track current flows without giving much thought to what was already adrift.

But when his mom quizzed him about where beach junk comes from, he realized that the ocean was filled with ready-made markers whose course he could plot from ship to shore.

Over the years, he's become the big Kahuna of beachcombers with a Web site, a newsletter, and a penchant for zipping around the country to attend beachcomber conferences.

He prowls beaches for shoes, plastic toys, glass floats, and tropical seeds.

Tall, with a raft of white hair and a salty beard, Ebbesmeyer could easily pass for a beach bum who traded his suit and tie for a straw-hat, a zinc oxide stripe, and a pair of flip-flops. Far from being a curio, his hobby gives clues to the ocean's highway of currents.

Shipping companies keep meticulous records. A ship's captain is required to note where a container went overboard.

If a Nike shoe washes onto a local beach, check the serial number on the insole, he said, and then trace its route from the point where it went AWOL. Proof that even a floating shoe leaves a footprint.

Based on his knowledge of ocean currents, Ebbesmeyer can predict when and where the goods will eventually turn up.

Millions of Legos plastic pieces that spilled overboard in three containers in the Atlantic last year are expected to drift north into the Arctic Ocean and then through the Northeast Passage. In a few more years, they are expected to travel south toward the 49th state, Alaska. Their expected arrival time on Alaskan beaches is 2012 and on Washington beaches in 2020, Ebbesmeyer said.

The coastline and inlet beaches of California, Oregon, and Washington are well-known destinations for floating goods. In Puget Sound the one percent rule applies, Ebbesmeyer said. About one percent of whatever is spilled or floats into the Strait of Juan de Fuca will reach inland beaches.

"The oil companies don't like me saying this, but if a million gallons of oil spill in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, one percent—10,000 gallons—will show up in Everett and Puget Sound."

In 1990, 80,000 pairs of Nikes in eight containers jumped ship during a storm in the mid-Pacific. Ten years later, some are still circumnavigating the Earth like miniature Magellans.

Shoes Can Float for Ten Years

A pair of athletic shoes can float for ten years, Ebbesmeyer said.

"They're still wearable even after three years at sea," he said. "A teenager will wear out a pair of Nikes in six months, proving that we're harder on shoes than the ocean."

Every beach is different, depending on the current. Items that wash up in Edmonds may not necessarily be found in Everett.

"They're like restaurants—some serve Thai food, some Indian or Chinese food. Some beaches are known for their glass or driftwood or artifacts."

In Edmonds, beach ranger Owen Caddy is used to finding the bright orange drift cards released by Ebbesmeyer's firm as part of the Puget Sound currents study.

And Caddy once assembled a little collection of his own.

"When I was up in Alaska a few years ago, we were picking up little rubber duckies off the beach," Caddy said.

In Everett, beachcombers have found beach glass, bottles and dishware dating from the 1800s. The spot where the Snohomish River drains into Puget Sound has proved an archaeologist's dream.

When the river cuts into its banks during the flood season, it sometimes washes out Indian artifacts, tools, and arrowheads.

"Five-thousand-year-old baskets have turned up at the mouth of the Snohomish. If you find one of those, call the Burke Museum," Ebbesmeyer advised.

Not everyone turns up treasures, but there are plenty of collectibles out there.

"Someone asked me if a plane full of hockey players had crashed. They were finding hockey gloves all over the beach."

Ebbesmeyer discovered that two 20-foot by 40-foot (6.1-meter by 12.2-meter) containers of hockey gloves, chest protectors, and shin guards had fallen overboard in the middle of the Pacific in 1994.

Manufactured items, glass, and sneakers are relative newcomers to the ocean's bounty; Mother Nature's spawn has been washing ashore for millions of years.

Sea beans, a tropical seed, can stay afloat for 30 years. They bob across the Pacific from Southeast Asia. They can be found on Edmonds and Mukilteo beaches, and despite the lengthy saltwater immersion, some will still sprout.

"But you don't want to do that," Ebbesmeyer said. "They're a tropical jungle vine, which grows to two feet (60 centimeters) in diameter—think of Jack-in-the-Beanstalk.

"The bad news is that they'll envelop your house. The good news is they can't stand any frost."

Hamburger beans, which resemble miniature Big Macs, can sometimes be found on local beaches. A tropical seed, they drift across the Pacific. Despite their appetizing appearance, "you don't want to eat them."

The beans are full of L-Dopamine, the chemical compound used to treat patients suffering from Parkinson's disease, and which woke actor Robert De Niro from a catatonic state in the movie Awakenings. "We think it's one of the bean's defenses against rodents," Ebbesmeyer said.

As for the manufactured junk floating in the ocean, it's not all a waste or a wash. Those Nike shoes, for instance, they're ambassadors of goodwill, a floating thrift store.

"Poor people around the world know, if you need a pair of shoes you go to the beach."

(c) 2001 HeraldNet

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