Reading flotsam

A top oceanographer studies the signals of the floating world

Reading flotsamIn November, when a disembodied foot washed ashore near Richmond, B.C.—the seventh found in the area in a 16-month period (one was revealed to be a hoax)—the media knew whom to call for insight: Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an expert of all that floats on the sea. Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, has made a career of what he calls “the floating world”: the trash and treasure that ride the ocean’s currents, sometimes for thousands of kilometres, before eventually washing up on the beach. What most of us might consider junk—a piece of plywood, a metal canister, an old sneaker—is, to him, a font of information. The ocean, he explains, has 11 “gyres”: continuous loops made up of smaller currents, each as distinct as the scales on a snake’s back. He believes these gyres are among the earth’s greatest features, sweeping everything, from people to plastic to water itself, around the globe. And flotsam is a language of sorts. “It’s what the ocean is writing to us,” he says. “Those are her characters. I want to know what they mean.”

The world’s foremost beachcomber, Ebbesmeyer spent his childhood in California’s landlocked San Fernando Valley. “We were close enough to the water to pine for it,” he writes in a book co-written with environmental reporter Eric Scigliano, out March 24. Flotsametrics and the Floating World is part autobiography, part glimpse into the science of the sea; just like flotsam on the beach, facts and legends about Ebbesmeyer’s work are sprinkled throughout.

Now based in Seattle, Ebbesmeyer began his career working for Mobil Oil, charting icebergs and giant waves that might threaten offshore oil platforms (off the coast of B.C., waves have been reported a daunting 30 metres high). Only in 1990 did he begin taking a serious interest in flotsam. That was when the cargo vessel Hansa Carrier, en route from Korea to Los Angeles, hit a vicious storm and dumped 21 containers overboard. Five of them held Nike running shoes, 80,000 in total, all unlaced. Months later, after drifting over 3,200 km, sneakers began washing up on Vancouver Island; thousands more littered the beaches in Oregon, not far from Nike’s Portland headquarters. A media frenzy ensued, catching Ebbesmeyer’s attention. “That’s when I realized what’s floating on the ocean is virtually unknown,” Ebbesmeyer says. “The only people who see it are beachcombers.”

Like an “oceanic gumshoe,” he set about tracking the sneakers using the Ocean Surface Current Simulator, used to calculate the effects of currents on salmon migration. (Ebbesmeyer has a pair of Nikes from the spill; they’re “beautiful shoes,” almost good as new, he says.) After a container ship dumped plastic bath toys—turtles, frogs, beavers, ducks—that washed up in Alaska, he tracked those, too. Seeking out beachcombers for information, Ebbesmeyer helped organize a loose-knit community; in 1996, he launched Beachcombers’ Alert!, a newsletter about flotsam that connects hobbyists worldwide.

He estimates that, since the mid-1900s, six million bottles with a message inside have been released into the ocean by oceanographers, schoolchildren, evangelists, and everyone in between. Countless are still afloat. “It’s not unusual to find one that’s been floating for 30 years,” he says. “Some are 80 years old.” There’s a story in Flotsametrics of how, from 1954 to 1959, Guinness dropped some 200,000 bottles in the ocean as a massive ad campaign for its bicentennial. People are still finding them, he says: Inuit hunters, who found about 80 washed up in Hudson Bay, used them as target practice until learning the beer company was offering a reward.

Compared with duckies or message bottles, feet make for grisly flotsam. Ebbesmeyer, who’s worked in “forensic beachcombing” for two decades, thinks the feet that washed ashore in B.C. are coincidence, not criminal. “It’s really not unusual for human remains to wash up,” he says. One of his favourite mysteries is the case of Barnacle Bill, an unidentified skeleton that came ashore in Hawaii in 1982, so named for the barnacles growing out of his eye sockets. “I’ve been searching [for 20 years] to find out who he was,” says Ebbesmeyer, who suspects the man fell overboard in the Arctic Ocean, drifted to Japan and Washington state, then on to Hawaii.

Ebbesmeyer’s work with sneakers won him fame, but his environmental work cemented his reputation. It was he who first coined the term “garbage patch” to describe the distinct wastelands of trash that now dot the ocean’s surface. Around the world, he has documented eight garbage patches, formed by currents and high pressure zones, where “refrigerators, tires, and old TV sets” bob up and down. If flotsam is a language, the story it tells is sometimes deeply tragic: “We’re plasticizing the ocean,” he says. “It’s infecting the food chain. If you eat something that comes from the ocean, it probably has plastic in it.”

Even if we stopped throwing trash into the ocean tomorrow, though, Ebbesmeyer wouldn’t be out of a job. Gyres can carry a piece of flotsam for “a couple centuries” before spitting it up on the shore, he says. Like it or not, then, beachcombers will be finding our junk for generations to come.

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