Quest for washed-up items is quest to know ocean

OCEAN SHORES, Grays Harbor — Let Northwest beachcombers knock themselves out looking for Japanese glass fishing floats, those hand-blown, delicately hued antique orbs of the deep.

Curt Ebbesmeyer yearns for junk. He will happily kick his way through piles of rain-soaked beach trash, exulting in the occasional sneaker ("some beaches collect more lefts than rights, and vice versa"), the banana float off a drift-net banned more than a decade ago ("they're still washing up") and a plastic road marker that at first glance looks like a sand dollar ("it's a keeper!")

"There are a lot of beachcombers who collect stuff, who specialize in beach glass or sand or who like to make art out of trash," he said. "But I want to know the story behind things."

Toward that end, the Seattle oceanographer has become a recognized expert on the flow of flotsam around the planet. In the process, he has contributed to our knowledge of the ocean currents that transport pollution, caused shipwrecks and create the moderate temperatures that make Seattle such a livable place.

Tapping his network of beachcombers from his Ravenna basement, Ebbesmeyer, 59, can at any one time be charting 100 things at sea: hockey gloves, abandoned yachts, plastic Cuban piggy banks, bath toys, the heads of Rugrats dolls.

He once calculated the 10,000-mile route of a piece of mahogany from Borneo in southeast Asia to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. He's still working on the case of a skeleton found, ironically, in a survival suit.

Walking the beach, his glasses mottled with raindrops and his khakis soaked through, he chuckles at each new find but bemoans a world now permeated by manmade dross.

Lately, he's been watching for three containers of blue-and-white Nike basketball shoes. They fell off a ship in December 40 miles from Cape Mendocino, Calif., and Ebbesmeyer, working with reports and a computer model developed by a friend at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) , expects reports of them washing up in Alaska any day now.

"It's literally a message in a bottle — a message in a shoe," Ebbesmeyer said. "If you have 33,000 Nikes lost, why not track them? There's no oceanographic experiment that I know of where you can get tens of thousands of objects released at one time in one place."

This is no mere parlor game. Ocean currents, which are shaped by wind, the Earth's curvature and large landmasses, play a little-appreciated but outsized role in our lives.

Were it not for warm ocean currents, London would be as cold as Newfoundland and Seattle would be as cold as Chicago.

"If the ocean currents were to suddenly stop, you'd have to redistribute all of humanity dramatically," Ebbesmeyer said.

In the mid-1800s, ignorance of the north-flowing Davidson Current had ship captains repeatedly misjudging their location off the Northwest coast. More than 100 ships went down off Cape Flattery.

Today, oceanographers worry that global warming could prompt a sudden shift in the ocean's currents, rapidly melting polar ice and raising sea levels dramatically.

But monitoring currents has long been one of oceanography's biggest challenges. It's a big world out there, three-quarters of it covered in water. Oceanographers have devised all sorts of expensive floats and drifters to study currents, but Ebbesmeyer found a way to use just plain stuff.

Phil Richardson, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, points out that expensive instruments can do far more than trash. "They're definitely more expensive than Nikes," he said, "but you get continuous measurements from them."

Still, the value of Ebbesmeyer's technique is not lost on him. Richardson himself once used old pilot charts to plot the courses of derelict and abandoned wooden ships from the late 1800s.

Ebbesmeyer's love of beachcombing started back in 1991, after a load of Nike sneakers and boots began washing up in Oregon. Beachcombers were holding swap meets to match lefts and rights and the correct sizes, drawing the attention of the news media and a curious Ebbesmeyer.

He talked with Nike's transportation manager and shipping lawyers, piecing together how the Hansa Carrier hit a storm at 48 degrees north, 161 degrees west, 500 miles south of the Alaska Peninsula. It lost 21 containers, including five with about 80,000 Nikes. Ebbesmeyer started a beachcombing network, detailing 1,600 of the recovered shoes.

Moreover, he used the records of the spill and various beachings to help Jim Ingraham, a NOAA oceanographer, calibrate the computerized Ocean Surface Current Simulator in his Sand Point office.

It turned out that no one else was doing this kind of work. Ebbesmeyer, already working part-time at Evans-Hamilton, an environmental and physical oceanographic-consulting firm, had realized his calling.

He had a lot to work with.

About 100 million shipping containers travel the globe each year in all conditions. When a ship starts rolling 35 degrees or so, containers start to go over the side. Ebbesmeyer figures 10,000 containers each year end up in the ocean, where their doors can easily be smashed open by tons of pitching cargo.

And one container might hold, say, 10 million shopping bags, 5 million Legos, or 100,000 bath toys like the ones lost en route in 1992 from China to Tacoma.

"There was thousands and thousands washing up in Sitka," he said. "And they've become a cult item in Alaska. Nobody will give you their toys."

Ebbesmeyer ended up posing in a hot tub full of duckies for "People" magazine. More to his liking, he appeared in "Scholastic News," hopefully inspiring school kids to take an interest in oceanography the way Jacques Cousteau inspired Ebbesmeyer's generation.

But charting flotsam has a dark side, too. Ebbesmeyer has tackled the ghoulish task of tracking several bodies, including a man who jumped from the Tacoma Narrows bridge and a skeleton that washed up in Hawaii in a survival suit in 1982.

Ebbesmeyer figured the suit was bought in Tacoma in 1979 and that its wearer, who had only one arm, fell off a drilling rig on Alaska's North Slope and drifted for two years. He still hopes to learn who he was.

Ebbesmeyer is also shocked at the magnitude of all the stuff out there. Two-thirds of all plastic float, and as Ebbesmeyer often comments, it's everywhere.

A published 1999 study by Ebbesmeyer and Capt. Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, found that the Pacific Ocean halfway between Honolulu and Seattle had six times as much microscopic plastic, by weight, as zooplankton.

The most remote beach in the South Pacific, he said, "will be full of crap." He laughs at the thought of Tom Hanks struggling to build a fire and otherwise survive in the movie "Cast Away."

"There would have been Bic lighters so he wouldn't have had to burn his hands," he said. "He would have had plenty of shoes. I've even had false teeth wash up. Everything he would have needed would have been right there."

Meanwhile, the Japanese float is quickly disappearing from the Pacific. Japan made about 100 million of them between 1911 and 1960, when they were replaced by plastic floats.

Their numbers are now falling off exponentially, but as Ebbesmeyer will tell you, some will end up circling the Pacific for a century.

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Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or