Lots of Lost Legos May Turn Up on Your Beach
A scientist gets the drift on shore trash
Say you are standing on the deck of a ship in the North Pacific near the international date line admiring your hockey glove when you accidentally drop it overboard. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, founder and president of the Beachcombers' and Oceanographers' International Association, with headquarters in his basement in Seattle, knows for a fact that it will float, forefinger up, and he has a good notion where and when it will wash up.
He knows because two shipping containers with 34,000 hockey gloves inside tumbled off an abandoned, burning cargo carrier, the Hyundai Seattle, in late 1994, before salvage crews got to it and towed it to port. The gloves started appearing on beaches in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in January 1996. They arrived exactly when another oceanographer with whom Ebbesmeyer often collaborates, W. James Ingraham Jr. of the National Marine Fisheries Service, predicted with a computer program called OSCURS (for ocean surface current simulations). Ingraham calculated the drift rate partly from the grip of the wind on the gloves' exposed fingers. The ship also lost 30,000 sneakers. Riding lower in the water, the shoes started dotting the beaches months later, again on schedule. "The gloves won, hands down, or up, or whatever," Ebbesmeyer said.
A 55-year-old oceanographer with a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Ebbesmeyer makes his real living calculating where oil spills, sewage, and other pollutants go if they get into the ocean, and predicting such things as the big gyres and eddies that can disrupt oil industry drilling platforms in deep water. If anything toxic, radioactive, or otherwise nasty and buoyant falls into the sea, such expertise will be vital as a way of predicting its drift.
But the scientist also edits and publishes Beachcombers' Alert!, a two-year-old newsletter with a circulation of 200. Although the maritime industry hardly advertises the fact, an amazing amount of cargo is lost at sea. A shipping industry trade magazine reports more than 1,000 containers overboard just this past December and January in the Atlantic and Pacific. Smashing around on deck before they hit the drink, the boxes, each 20 to 40 feet long, often burst open. Right now, Ebbesmeyer is telling East Coast beachcombers to be on the lookout for the 4,756,940 plastic Lego children's toys a rogue wave tore from the deck of the Tokio Express 20 miles off Land's End, England, on Feb. 13, 1997. Ebbesmeyer confirmed the plastic building blocks' buoyancy in his test tank: a bucket atop his toilet.
Ingraham's oceanographic information suggests the Legos will reach the United States this summer. They include 48,500 black Lego witch hats, 26,600 yellow Lego life preservers, and 18,200 tiny black frying pans. Odd beach finds noted in the journal include 500,000 cans of beer lost from a Chinese cargo ship near Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of flip-flop beach sandals on Australia's Cocos and Keeling Islands, Hershey's Kisses from a ship bound for Baltimore, emergency rations from lifeboats, and unusual natural debris such as seeds of rare tropical plants, some resembling tiny brown hamburgers, found on beaches in far northern regions. (Ebbesmeyer welcomes news about beach finds; he can be found at 6306 21st Avenue, N.E., Seattle, WA 98115 or www.beachcombers.org.)