The 150-pound piece of a skiff, torn in half and adorned with Japanese characters, was most likely a remnant of the tsunami that struck eastern Japan last year.
This scientific expedition was unusual in many ways, including the fact that it didn’t contain any scientists. Members of the volunteer crew hailed from six countries and lived on a yacht for a month in hopes of finding an array of debris they could photograph and blog about.
They are part of a citizens’ brigade that has been fanning out along the West Coast and in the Pacific, collecting and categorizing thousands of items that were swept out to sea after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into coastal Japanese communities in March 2011. In some cases, they are tracking down and returning items to their owners.
These citizen scientists aren’t waiting for government direction. Kayakers in Washington have taken it upon themselves to explore remote islands for refuse, surfers in Oregon have posted cleanup guidelines on local beaches, and scuba divers in Hawaii have retrieved debris off the coast of Maui.
Their efforts have quickly become the backbone of a national effort to better understand what is washing up along thousands of miles of coastline.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has domain over United States waters, deployed a drone above Oahu in June to determine whether aerial monitoring is feasible. Fishing nets, wooden construction debris and buoys were placed in the water to test whether the Puma unmanned aircraft would recognize the objects and then send images back to NOAA via satellite.
But NOAA has also been relying, in part, on volunteers. The agency has received more than 1,000 reports of marine debris on United States beaches since the organization started its marine debris hot line last December.
Not all debris is from Japan, but confirmed pieces of tsunami debris include five derelict fishing boats, a soccer ball, a volleyball and several fishing floats.
Citizen scientists have taken an archaeological interest in the flotsam.
“The tsunami debris is something of a time capsule,” said Ken Campbell, a professional kayaker who, with two fellow guides, has toured Washington islands looking for lost items.
Many see the debris field as a watery Pompeii, eloquent but impermanent, soon to be wiped clean by the force of waves and gravity.
“Beachcombers are like archaeologists, and if you don’t talk to them when the debris arrives, the info is lost,” said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer