Curtis Ebbesmeyer and the Japanese Tsunami

Why the debris expert says you should head for the beach.

That floating debris dispatched into the Pacific in March by the Japan earthquake and tsunami has likely already arrived on the Washington coast, but nobody’s discovered it yet, says Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the finder of lost feet and rubber duckies. The Japan flotsam field is about the size of California, and most of it will take months to arrive. But bigger objects should already have landed, he says.

“No reports as yet,” says Ebbesmeyer, 68, known as Dr. Duck to the schoolkids he lectures on flotsam, jetsam, and buoyant body parts, “though our model shows the larger debris, like boats and big buoys, on our coast as of October 31.”

The former University of Washington oceanographer—last featured in a 2008 Seattle Weekly cover story (“The Seven-Foot Mystery,” Dec. 10, about those floating tennis shoes with human feet that washed up on the shores of British Columbia) says his computer simulation puts the Japan flotsam drift on a collision course with the Northwest. By his calculations, the debris has been hitting coastal shores from Washington to Alaska for more than three weeks. “This is a lot earlier than government predictions because this simulation applies to flotsam drifting at 20 miles per day, which thus cross the Pacific in eight months,” he says.

Ebbesmeyer endlessly tracks surface currents and watery curiosities, such as floating garbage patches and container spills, to determine flow patterns. His notable research efforts include mapping the destination of the bath toys and sports shoes that filled shipping containers which tumbled off a deck and into the ocean, later washing ashore. In 2003 he accurately projected the land arrival of 5,500 pairs of Nike sports shoes that went overboard in the Pacific. Moochers stormed the coastal beaches, and many indeed found shoes—but, alas, not all were in pairs.

He’s also consulted by investigators trying to determine the watery trail of bodies and body parts. He once helped to connect, so to speak, a head found on an Oregon beach with a torso found on the Washington coast. He’s a go-to guy for the media as well, and helped to explain the case of seven sports shoes found on beaches in a short period with their owners’ feet still attached: Most likely they were the coincidental resurfacing of decomposed remains from assorted drowning victims, and not a mass de-footing.

Now Ebbesmeyer is getting frequent inquiries from reporters asking where the latest debris flow, adrift from Japan since March 11, has gone. Dr. Duck tells them it’s just a matter of time before the news begins to wash in from his trusted seashore snoops. “I’m hoping the flurry of media attention will cause beachcombers to be on special alert,” he says.


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