From a distance, John Anderson thought he had spotted another plastic float, like the hundreds he has gathered since debris from the Japanese tsunami began washing ashore along the Northwest coast.
He got closer, reaching behind a log last spring to discover one of the most memorable finds in three decades of beachcombing: a volleyball covered with inked Japanese inscriptions. Some of the writing, faded by the sun, was illegible. Other characters, once Anderson scraped away barnacles, were surprisingly clear.
“This was a shocker,” said Anderson. “I wondered whose ball it was, and whether they were still alive.”
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Two years ago — on March 11, 2011 — a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a powerful tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people as it transformed large swaths of coastal communities into giant debris fields.
Survivors’ cellphone videos captured the terrifying movements of the ocean as dark raging waters — filled with boats, houses and cars — pushed onshore. Here in the Pacific Northwest, those images also were powerful reminders of the tsunamis that have struck our coasts in centuries past and are predicted to hit again.
As the second anniversary of the quake arrives, large areas of shoreline in Japan have been largely cleared of rubble, yet flotsam that has made a trans-Pacific journey continues to wash up on U.S. and Canadian coasts, and federal officials predict this debris will continue to sporadically pulse on to beaches for years to come.
So far, only 21 items have been definitively declared tsunami debris by U.S. and Canadian officials who — with the help of the Japanese consulates — have been able to identify owners.
They include a motorcycle, a plastic tote and a 65-foot-long stretch of dock from the city of Misawa that lodged along a remote stretch of Olympic Peninsula shoreline in December. In the coming weeks, that dock will be cut up and hauled away by helicopter in a $628,000 salvage effort largely financed by the Japanese government.
“We don’t like to leave a mess,” said Tomoko Dodo, acting consulate general in Seattle for Japan, which has donated $5 million to debris cleanup in the United States and another $1 million in Canada. “(U.S. officials) say it is not our fault, and we agree with them … I think that it is a goodwill gesture. We want to show the United States our gratitude for the support we received from your country during the tsunami.”
A handful of items have been returned to Japan in the past year for longshot reunions with owners. A yellow buoy retrieved in Alaska was emblazoned with a large Japanese character, Kei, and traced to Sakiki Miura, a widow who had used the float as part of a sign for a restaurant destroyed in the tsunami.
Last June, Miura was overjoyed to regain the buoy, and decided to reopen the restaurant.
“Kei-Chan has returned,” she tearfully declared, according to a report published in The Asahi Shimbun.
Anderson, of the Forks area, is planning to return to Japan this summer with filmmakers producing a tsunami documentary entitled “Lost & Found,” and hopes to reunite the volleyball with its owner.
So far, a translator’s review of the inscriptions found a few partial names, and well-wishes that make it appear the volleyball was a farewell gift, possibly to a graduating student, from other team members.
“I’m sure you will have a great life,” said one inscription.
“I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your new endeavor,” said another.
But so far, no owner has been identified.
“There have got to be other teams that they played that would recognize those names from somewhere that didn’t get wiped out — you would think so,” Anderson said.
Two Washington kayakers who surveyed the coast last summer found a soccer ball with an inscription that was traced to a team in a town on the northeast coast.
During one of their survey trips, they also came upon an eerie scene: a pile of house timbers that contained a child’s potty, a bottle of cough syrup, a laundry hamper and a piece of a washing machine.
“It was one of those slowly developing things. We realized, we were in someone’s bathroom … in someone else’s house, “ recalls Ken Campbell, a kayaker who has produced a documentary about the their surveys, which is called The Roadless Coast.
Federal and state officials caution that it is difficult — and often impossible — to figure out just what debris came from the tsunami, and what is part of the broader stew of plastics and other items carried by Pacific currents toward the Northwest coast, where some blows ashore and the rest head in gyres that loop south along the West Coast and north up to Alaska.
For Anderson, through decades of beachcombing, the ocean’s marine debris has yielded plenty of treasures, which have been put on impressive display at his homestead just outside Forks.
In his front yard, a towering beachcomber’s monument made up of thousands of floats rises like some kind of maritime totem pole. In an upstairs loft, his museum includes Saki bottles thrown out of ships, Nike shoes and thousands of other items.
All this on the beach has given Anderson a keen sense of the yearly ebbs and flows of marine debris. Within the past 18 months, the pace of his beachcombing finds has picked up dramatically, with many items that appear likely to have come from Japan.
Last week on stroll along Second Beach near La Push, Clallam County, Anderson’s found a chunk of what once appeared to be a dock, house beams with the notches typical of Japanese construction, a black float of the type used by Japanese oyster farms and bottles bearing Japanese markings.
Trapped within the driftwood, Anderson found hunks, pellets and slivers of blue, yellow and white foam insulation, which were among the first objects to arrive more than a year ago and continue to show up on the beaches.
“I’ve seen pockets of Styrofoam packed 2 feet deep,” Anderson said. “Before the tsunami, I never saw anything like that”
“Certainly, the change in foam has been notable in many areas,” said Peter Murphy, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official who is helping monitor marine debris. “And it does pose a cleanup challenge.”
The insulated foam, as it breaks up into small beads, can be ingested by birds and other creatures. Concerns about foam pollution have prompted National Park and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary officials to opt for the salvage of the Misawa dock that came ashore in December. Buffeted by rocks and surf, it is no longer seaworthy so it can’t be towed off the beach, and that prompted the decision to launch the helicopter airlift.
“Most of the mass is foam, enough to fill about 20 large dump trucks, and it is a significant risk to the intertidal area,” said Rainey McKenna, a spokeswoman for the Olympic National Park.
This Olympic Peninsula dock is one of four identical pieces that the tsunami tore away from Misawa. One went inland, while a second has been seen off Hawaii. A third piece washed ashore in Oregon, where a chunk has been preserved in an interpretive exhibit that will help educate people about what happened in Japan, and what could happen here.
In Washington state, kayaker Campbell and his survey colleague Steve Weileman also are trying to spread the world about the tsunami and other marine debris. They formed an organization called The Ikkatsu Project, which they hope can help fund future survey expeditions.
“Ikkatsu is a Japanese word that means ‘all together as one,’ ” Weileman said. “What happens on that side of the Pacific will one day happen on this side.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org