Since then, scientists have been tracking and monitoring the wreckage—bits of houses, whole cars, and household appliances—floating at sea, corralled by ocean currents in the North Pacific into an area researchers estimate could be the size of California. And now they're inviting the public along for the ride, for a price.
Few people have seen the floating tsunami debris field up close, and most have been scientists or crew members on shipping freighters. But in May 2012 Pangaea Explorations, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the 5 Gyres Institute—organizations that specialize in researching plastic accumulation in the oceans-will take scientists and paying members of the public to the floating field of ruins. (See 20 unforgettable pictures of the Japan-tsunami aftermath.)
The trip aboard the Sea Dragon, a 72-foot (22-meter) sailing yacht, will loop the Pacific in two legs.
The first leg—a 23-day trip originating in the Marshall Islands, passing through the giant ocean vortex called the Western Pacific Gyre, and ending in Tokyo—has a small chance of encountering the tsunami debris field. (See pictures of debris from a Pacific garbage patch.)
But the second leg, originating in Tokyo, will follow the path of the debris with the specific intent of sampling it. That leg is to end 32 days later in Hawaii, where some of the material may come ashore as early the beginning of next year, according to predictions by the International Pacific Research Center.
Neither cruise is exactly a budget vacation, with the first leg priced at U.S. $13,500 per person (eight spots still available) and the tsunami-debris expedition at $15,500 per person (five spots available).
According to Jeanne Gallagher, office manager at Algalita, most of that hefty outlay goes toward food, fuel, research expenses, and insurance—paying passengers are often inexperienced sailors.
Any profit—which would be unexpected, according to Gallagher—would be used for further research.
"Pieces of People's Lives"
"The opportunity (to study plastic accumulation) has been laid in our laps through a natural disaster," Gallagher said.
"But we're also going to be sailing through pieces of people's lives, and we'll go through that with velvet slippers as much as we can."
Although this is a research mission to study the tsunami debris field, and not a recovery one, Gallagher said that if the team encounters any small objects that appear to be traceable to a person or a family in Japan, they will make every effort to return the items.
The project brings paying tourists to the debris field at a time when there's still concern in Japan about missing victims of the disaster. But Nori Akashi, a representative of the Japanese National Tourism Organization, said she does not believe the project will garner resentment, because the cruise is primarily a scientific venture.
Only 13 people, including 4 trained crew, will make each leg of the trans-Pacific crossing, so all participants will be integral and active in ship life, including keeping watch for navigational hazards in the debris field, sailing the boat, cooking, cleaning, and collecting scientific data.
Participants are also expected to help document any interesting sightings. All crew members, paying or otherwise, will sleep on bunks in a single large room.
Learning Plastic's Behavior
The samples they collect during several transects of the field will be used to determine and refine existing models of how fast the material is moving, how quickly it is decomposing, and the nature of the material's colonization by marine animals. Past trips to study marine debris with these organizations have attracted everyone from independent scientists to film crews and artists.
Findings gleaned from the tsunami debris are particularly significant because, unlike concentrated marine pollution elsewhere, the tsunami material's "launch" date and place of origin are known. With this information, researchers can better understand how land-based materials like plastics behave in the ocean.
One of the participants, Valerie Lecoeur, 41 of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said she hopes to see where plastic accumulates in the ocean firsthand.
"For me it's interesting to see that there is debris from the ocean coming from events like tsunami—things that you can't control—and things that you can control as well."
Lecoeur plans to finance her trip through corporate sponsorship and online fundraising.
"I want to see for myself the scope of plastic pollution in our oceans and share what I will discover with my customers and retailers. I am planning on also reaching out to schools in North Carolina so they can follow the voyage and educate youngsters about what plastic does to our environment."
Crew members will be able to send updates and emails via satellite during the voyage.
Tsunami Objects May Still Be Intact at Sea
In September a Russian ship sighted an empty fishing boat from the Fukushima Prefecture—one of the areas hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunami. A TV set and refrigerator were also found in what was likely the outer edge of the debris field, 300 miles (480 kilometers) northwest of Hawaii's Midway Atoll. Algalita's Gallagher said that, while the tsunami-debris cruise's route is mostly defined, the return trip may include a stop on Midway to determine if any of the debris has washed ashore there.
Algalita Executive Director Marieta Francis said she expects the crew will encounter more large objects in the tsunami debris field than they might find in other areas of aggregated debris, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, because these materials will not have been worn down. In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, tiny plastic pieces, worn down over years of exposure to the elements, dominate samples.
Marine debris is a serious hazard to aquatic life that can ingest it or become entangled in it.
Lecoeur, the North Carolina entrepreneur, said, "I wonder if on this trip, I will have the same feeling looking out at the ocean that I have on the beach. Looking across it, you see that the beach looks clean, but when you walk on it and look closely, you see all of these tiny bits of plastic."
Still, little is known about what the expedition might find.
"No one knows what to expect in the debris field," said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who has studied ocean currents for more than 20 years and who is not involved with this trip. "Human remains in sneakers are possible. Expect the unexpected."
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