ABOARD THE SEA DRAGON, 1,000 miles east of Japan — After narrowly avoiding a typhoon, battling seasickness and being pelted by rain for days on end, crew members aboard the Sea Dragon were galvanized by the sight of a stranded boat.
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.
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 has received more than 1,000 reports of marine debris on U.S. beaches since the organization started its marine debris hot line last December.
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 who started the world’s largest beachcombing organization.
Along with the Algalita Marine Research Institute, Marcus Eriksen, whose marine conservation nonprofit organization, 5 Gyres Institute, chartered the Sea Dragon expedition in June, said the natural disaster hit home. “When you see this swath of debris washing ashore, it’s hard not to feel connected to their tragedy because in some ways you experienced it with them."
Japanese officials estimate that up to 1.5 million tons of debris is still afloat, and large items like a concrete dock and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle have already washed up along the coasts of Oregon and British Columbia.