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Latest Expedition Journal

November 1:  Day 30

Posted by Whitney Horstman

Bittersweet Treasure Hunt:  Tracking Debris from the Japanese Tsunami

In early March 2011 a banner appeared at the bottom of my TV screen advising a tsunami advisory for the state of Hawaii due to an earthquake that had just occurred off the coast of Japan.  A tsunami “advisory” does not necessarily mean that a tsunami has been generated, just that conditions make one possible.  The next level of alert, tsunami “warning,” means that a tsunami has definitely been generated, but it is extremely difficult to predict the size until it impacts a land mass.  

Hawaii has multiple tsunami watches and warnings per year, most of which turn out to be nothing greater than strong tides and currents for a few days, so at that moment I was alert but not alarmed.  Ten minutes later I became alarmed as the film I had been watching was interrupted with the live coverage of a massive tsunami devastating huge sections of the coastline of Japan.  

Hawaii’s tsunami watch became an urgent warning.  We had eight hours to prepare.  The roads would close in four hours so supermarkets and the gas stations were immediately inundated.  We were told to plan for the possibility of days with loss of infrastructure (electricity, water, airports, and commercial harbors).  The coastline resorts went into evacuation mode, setting up facilities for thousands of guests outside the evacuation areas. 

I live only a mile from the ocean on the Big Island of Hawaii, but it is all uphill, so we were far outside the surge zones.  My neighborhood instantly doubled in population as residents of evacuation areas came to stay with friends and family, cars piled high with their valuables.  My household made our supply runs and came home with nothing left to do but wait, and watch the television with growing horror.  The sun went down.  We continued to wait.

Luckily, the damage Hawaii sustained was not devastating.  It was the most significant tsunami Hawaii has experienced in the past fifty years, but no one died, and the property damage was impressive but not catastrophic.  In the past few months the memories of that day have resurfaced as the first of the debris from Japan is beginning to show up in the waters around Hawaii.  Oddly enough, just this past week, another tsunami hit Hawaii.  Although we could not feel it, the wave that originated on the west coast of Canada travelled under our ship the evening it hit Hawaii.

One of the research projects in progress on this expedition is gathering data to better understand the progress of the Japan tsunami debris around the Pacific.  We spend ten minutes of every daylight hour specifically scanning the waters for debris, and carefully logging flotsam spotted at any other time.  Determining the definite origin of most of these objects is difficult.  Often it is just pieces of plastic or foam, huge swaths of fishing nets and tangled lines, fishing buoys with no definitive markings, and plastic bottles with no labels.  Below is a list of items we believe to be from Japan, and our reasoning behind it.  Most of these are conjectural, as “proof” is impossible.

Red round plastic fishing buoy:  Japanese characters are stamped into the surface which were photographed and emailed out for translation.  The buoy originated in a southern sub-region of Hokkaido.

Other round plastic fishing buoys:  three black, one faded red, and one white, of various sizes.  These all also have Japanese characters stamped on them, one of which identifies it as belonging to the fishery industry complex name Nichimou.  The white buoy also says, “Made in Japan” in English.

Plastic beverage bottle:  Still has the label, all of which is in Japanese.  If it were an import from Japan for U.S. consumption chances are it would have an English nutrition label on it.

Glass bottle:  Has Japanese characters and the word “Sanyo” on it, which is apparently a pharmaceutical company

Refrigerator:  We did not have the space or the means to get it on board, but were able to open a drawer with a gaff hook and extract various packaged foods whose wrappers were indubitably from Japan.

Glass fishing floats:  two large round glass balls traditionally used to float fishing nets in Japan, but we haven’t yet confirmed their origin.

Child’s ball:  Small soft rubber ball with an anime character painted on it.  We have been unable to research the origin of the character while at sea, but the style could be Japanese.

Half a fishing skiff:  The flat bottom and small size means this was either a near-coastal craft or for use in inland bodies of water.  We were unable to discern any identifying markings, and could be from any of the pan-Asian coastal countries.

Small section of floating dock:  The colors of the floats (green, yellow, blue) are rarely used on the U.S. side of the Pacific.  Once again, the actual country of origin is unknown.

Finding “treasures” out at sea such as the items listed here can be thrilling, the excitement onboard is palpable when we spot something, change course, and attempt retrieval.  The strange part is that it becomes a bittersweet moment because the floating debris has a history—potentially of devastation.