At 2:46 pm, on Friday, March 11, 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck 70 miles east of Tohaku, Japan. What happened next will likely never be forgotten. An estimated 10-30 minutes later, a tsunami, with a wave height reaching nearly 39 meters struck the island causing massive devastation, great loss of life, and the worst nuclear accident since the explosion and meltdown of the reactor core at Chernobyl in 1986.
Every wave that comes in to shore must return to the sea, and this tsunami was no exception. When this massive wave returned to the sea it took with it between 20 and 100 tons of debris. Everything from cars, building materials, fishing vessels, personal items and yes, even bodies and body parts were sucked into the Pacific Ocean to begin a long voyage to the U.S. Pacific coast and points in between.
On April 4, 2012 the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boat, the Anacapa intercepted one such piece of flotsam. A Japanese fishing trawler, the Ryou-Un Maru, battered, rusting, and unmanned had finally made its way across the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and was encroaching U.S. waters. The year before, the old shrimp trawler had been being prepared for the scrap yard when she was ripped from the moorings of Hokkaido and dragged, crewless into the Pacific Ocean. The Skipper of a Canadian fishing vessel on the scene thought that he may attempt to salvage the old boat; he failed and abandoned the attempt. On the afternoon of April 5, because of the danger to shipping and the possibility of ecological damage to the Alaskan fisheries, the ghost ship was sunk using high explosive rounds from a 25mm deck gun. The Ryou-Un Maru met her fate in over 1500 fathoms of water.
While some researchers believe that the vast majority of the flotsam from the Tsunami will gather and then disintegrate in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is believed that a significant amount of the debris will wash ashore in the Pacific Northwest. This belief is holding true as the Ryou-Un Maru was not the first of the debris from the tsunami to reach shore.
In December of 2011, some nine months after the disaster, objects described as “large black floats”, various types of fishing buoys, washed up in the Pacific Northwest. Bottles, cans, lumber and other items have washed ashore on the North American and Canadian west coasts. By March, 2012, dozens of buoys of various types had washed up on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State alone. As of December 2011, a floating debris field, twice the size of Texas was spotted 1500 miles (2700 km) east of Hawaii and travelling east at 7 to 20 miles per hour. Aside from the mysterious severed feet found in shoes that have been washing up the past few years along beaches in Canada and Washington, there have been, thankfully, no reports of body parts washing ashore that can be attributed to the Japanese Tsunami.
Perhaps most disturbing is that with the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it is possible that some items may be radioactive, or contain radioactive or simply toxic material. Beachcombers are advised that if they come across any debris they believe may be from Japan, to contact authorities immediately.
Additionally, officials have asked that all debris, in addition to being treated with the greatest respect, be treated with great care. Officials have also requested that if any object that can be positively identified as belonging to a particular owner, that all efforts be made to return that object to the owner.