A new wave in ocean study From the travels of flotsam and jetsam, an oceanographer gains insights into life on the sea.; SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

Some people collect stuff they find on the beach. Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer collects stories about that stuff and translates them into scientific data.

He's tracking the drift of 80,000 Nike shoes, 29,000 bathtub toys, 34,000 hockey gloves, half a million unopened cans of beer and 5 million Lego toy pieces - all fallen off ships and riding the currents to an occasional landfall. He hears from people who find strange things washed to shore, from Cracker Jack prizes to pianos. He runs experiments to see whether a rubber ducky will crack when drifting in icy waters (no) and whether a full can of beer will float (yes, barely).


He notes how many objects wash up, and where; their serial numbers; their species; their dimensions; and whether they wear an encrustation of barnacles.

All this goes into Beachcombers' Alert!, a newsletter that serves as a clearinghouse for information on ocean drifters - from exotic tropical seeds to abandoned yachts and the tiny plastic pellets known as nurdles.


Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer with Evans-Hamilton Inc. in Seattle, started the newsletter (online at a few years ago in an effort to bring researchers and beachcombers together to ponder the significance of flotsam and jetsam.

"Scientists think it's too silly," Ebbesmeyer says. "For a scientist sitting in an office, it's usually an irritant when a beachcomber calls."

But he thinks they have a lot to offer each other.

Based on tips from beachcombers, oceanographers can track the drift of thousands of objects around the oceans - information they can use to fine-tune their models of how the currents flow, among other things.

These currents are important not only for navigation but also for plotting the trajectories of oil spills and understanding the life of the ocean - the spread of fish larvae, the drift of plankton and the paths that salmon take to the streams of their birth.

Ebbesmeyer estimates that 1,000 cargo containers plop into the sea from ships every year - just part of a growing burden of debris in the world's oceans.

It tends to collect in hot spots where prominent currents come to shore. Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia get the North Pacific drift from Japan. Florida collects the fruits of the Gulf Stream.

"The whole issue of how long things can swirl around the ocean really isn't answered," Ebbes-meyer says. "The whole idea of how things beach is virtually unexplored."


For their part, beachcombers can get help identifying their finds - and taste the excitement of research.

"It's nice to think my hobby is able to advance the cause of science a bit," says Steven McLeod, a 53-year-old artist who spent part of his childhood combing the beach in northern California.

McLeod inadvertently helped to start the Beachcombers' Alert! network in 1991 when he noticed that Nike sneakers and hiking boots and Etonic golf shoes were washing up near his home in Cannon Beach, Ore.

"They were brand-new," he recalls. "I mean, they didn't have any wear on them. ... I thought something must be going on."

He started hearing about people finding 40 or 80 or 100 shoes on beaches from Northern California to the Queen Charlotte

Islands in British Columbia. He organized a series of swap meets in which people matched about 500 pairs of shoes - all wearable, after some scrubbing, despite their months adrift.


Intrigued by the shoe bonanza, Ebb-esmeyer traced the source of the spill to the North Korean container ship Hansa Carrier, which ran into a severe storm in the North Pacific on May 27, 1990, and lost 21 cargo containers. Among the lost cargo: 80,000 shoes.

Ebbesmeyer called a friend and collaborator, oceanographer W. James Ingraham Jr. of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle, who uses a computer model to simulate Pacific currents.

Given the time and location of the spill, Ebbesmeyer asked, where would the shoes likely wash up? Ingraham ran the model " and came up with a simulated path that ended just north of the actual landing sites.

The two wrote up their findings in Eos, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. At the time of the report in August 1992, a few shoes had been found on Hawaii's Big Island, having ridden the California current southward and then west. The researchers predicted that some of the shoes would turn up in Japan and other parts of Asia - if they survived.

The scientists and the beachcombers stayed in touch. It wasn't lTC long until the next big spill - 29,000 plastic bathtub toys that washed overboard Jan. 10, 1992, in the North Pacific. There were yellow ducks, blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs, each in a plastic housing glued to a piece of cardboard.

The researchers bought identical toys from a store and submerged them in a bucket of seawater to see how long the packages would hold together. The glue softened within a day, setting the plastic animals free.


The first half-dozen toys washed ashore in Sitka, Alaska, in November; more than 600 have been recovered so far. Some of the toys probably reached the southwest Bering Sea, where they presumably spent the winter of 1994-1995 frozen into the ice pack, Ebbesmeyer says. But no matter. Tests of an identical rubber ducky in his home freezer show that the toys should have survived intact.

Then there were the 34,000 hockey gloves and 34,000 sneakers that washed off the Hyundai Seattle 2,000 miles off the Washington coast on Dec. 9, 1994. The gloves and sneakers made it to shore at exactly the time and place thatIngraham predicted.

What's next?

A Chinese cargo ship capsized west of Hong Kong last June, apparently spilling 500,000 cans of beer; look for the cans to show up around the Pacific, the newsletter says.

And 4,756,940 Lego toy pieces fell from a ship off the coast of England in February 1997. Tests show that 53 of the 100 types of Legos involved in the spill should float. Look for them on the beaches of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas this summer; by the year 2020, the currents should distribute the Legos through much of the Northern Hemisphere.

Not all sea drifters are artificial. People have been finding thousands of black walnuts that may have been washed out of California's Central Valley groves by the floods of early 1997, for instance. And some flotsam is intentional, like the sketches bottled and set adrift by a Dutch artist, and the messages in bottles released each year by school kids in Oregon.


By far the most sobering finds involve people, such as the crude rafts built by "freedom floaters" in Cuba that wash up in Florida.

Ebbesmeyer says the single biggest unsolved mystery he has encountered is the case of a survival suit that washed up in Hawaii in 1982 - with a human skeleton inside, missing the left arm below the elbow. It was that of a white male, 25-35 years old.

"I've been working on that case for years," Ebbesmeyer said. "Somebody's mother is missing that guy."

Pub Date: 7/19/98