The ultimate beach boy

A Puget Sound beachcomber and U.W. oceanographer has expanded our understanding of the oceans by studying driftwood and rubber duckies. Here's an unbeatable "beach read" for the summer.
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Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, beachcomber extraordinaire

A Puget Sound beachcomber and U.W. oceanographer has expanded our understanding of the oceans by studying driftwood and rubber duckies. Here's an unbeatable "beach read" for the summer.

The ultimate Northwest beach reading this summer is Flotsametrics and the Floating World by Seattleites Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano (Smithsonian Books, $26.99). The book's subtitle is "How one man's obsession with runaway sneakers and rubber ducks revolutionized ocean science." That man would be Ebbesmeyer, who you may have read about in the local or national press or heard interviewed frequently enough on KUOW-FM that you might call him the "Cliff Mass of flotsam."

Dr. Ebbesmeyer is a University of Washington-trained oceanographer who has spent years studying the world's oceans by collecting and analyzing what washes up on our shores. In short, he's a professional beachcomber who has gained insights into how the world works. If Newton considered falling apples, Ebbesmeyer has contemplated wandering Nike sneakers and plastic bath toys, Japanese fishing floats, and message bottles to help him unravel the secrets of how the seas circulate.

It's strange to contemplate that such activities would be useful, other than simply killing time. Beachcombers, after all, are the ultimate slackers, and beachcombing a kind of holiday therapy for people seeking escape from their workaday lives. For most, debris found on the beach is a curiosity at best, a souvenir of summer vacation. At worst, they regard it as the raw material for driftwood art to adorn their cabins.

But when Ebbesmeyer looks at a beach, he sees bits of data. Those drift logs and Clorox bottles tell a story about where they came from, and how they got to this particular spot. Ebbesmeyer tracks the history of the importance of studying flotsam and jetsam. It helped lead Christopher Columbus to the New World, for instance, and it told the Vikings where the best harbors were on Iceland. It turns out beaches are records of far away shipwrecks, lost cargo and lost people, volcanic eruptions, catastrophes like floods and hurricanes, as well as sodden trash heaps. Everything flows to the sea, including what we put in our bodies and what we throw away. Some of it is never seen again, some of it comes back.

Studying the effects of the interval between disposal and recovery provides useful information. Ebbesmeyer describes how currents, tides, and the flow of the sea in vast circulating gyres impact our weather, water, sea life, even trade. Using computers and networks of obsessive beachcombers to be his eyes and ears, Ebbesmeyer has been able to learn much about how ocean waters move. He does this by researching, analyzing, and computer-modeling strange events.

In one case, he followed the travels of a load of plastic toys that went overboard at sea. In another widely publicized case, he tracked a lost container load of Nike sneakers that eventually began washing up on beaches from the Arctic to California. Some of the irresistible kinds of details we're treated to in this chapter are why Nikes float so well, why they remain in good shape even after years bobbing upside down in the ocean, and why you might likely find a matching pair.

Another famous case, also involving sneakers, is the mystery of human feet that have been washing up on the beaches of the Salish Sea lately. Ebbesmeyer tells tales about floating corpses, including why accurate information for burials at sea are given in the pirate song, "Sixteen Men on a Deadman's Chest." He renders the feet mystery quite logical when you learn how human bodies come apart in water. It's not likely the work of a seagoing Ted Bundy, but natural processes, aided by modern shoe design.

Beachcombers like Ebbesmeyer bring a kind of CSI-style of investigation to their work, and sometimes it literally becomes CSI work. I grew up listening to my father's stories about corpses in water (he was a pathologist), including what happens to bodies that have been dumped into salt water while wearing cement overshoes (Jimmy Hoffa was clearly disposed of in a much better way, indicating mobsters have a learning curve). Water-logged bodies have a way of coming back to haunt you. Despite years of dinnertime listening to my father's wisdom on such matters, Ebbesmeyer added to my, uh, body of knowledge.

From the standpoint of beach reading, the book is at its best when talking about the cool stuff, like the history of Japanese junks washing up on the shores of North America long before Columbus (and after). Or the discovery of Northwest wooden canoes washed up and buried on the beaches of Baja. Or a long description of "floating" islands (yes, they're real). But Ebbesmeyer is a scientist and Scigliano, who was a colleague of mine at Seattle Weekly, is terrific at making science understandable. Eric once famously wrote a cover series about dirt and made it interesting. The book acts as a kind of Cliff Notes in the history of oceanography.

Flotsametrics is written in Ebbesmeyer's first person voice, which is somewhat unfortunate because some of the details of his life and background are not that compelling. His early work on tracking and describing "water slabs" in Dabob Bay on Hood Canal is important scientifically, but I found myself getting a little impatient, wanting to get on to treasure hunting along the shores. I spent countless hours as a child as a drift-wood hopping Indiana Jones and kept wanting the authors to get to the real action.

They do, of course, but they also find time for the big picture. Toward the end of the book Ebbesmeyer weighs in about the environmental problems he sees in our oceans. The prevalence of plastic, for one thing, which disintegrates into bits that can kill seabirds and disrupt the reproductive cycles of sea life, and who knows what else. His description of a visit to a remote beach on the Big Island of Hawaii that scoops up volumes of loose garbage from the sea offers appalling evidence of the impact of human chemistry on the world's ecosystems.

For many years, Ebbesmeyer made his living as a consulting oceanographer, working for oil companies and on major sewer projects (like Brightwater). He looked into oil spill risks to Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While some of his work resulted in good things (like stronger, safer oil platforms) he has grown cynical over the years. The oil companies, he says, stopped listening to things they didn't want to hear; others clients only cared if their projects met federal regulations, even if they weren't safe or smart for other reasons. His concern about the future of Puget Sound and our willingness to really do what it will take to clean it up is evident. I would like to have heard more about that.

Such serious matters give the book a little edge and will, I hope, help sharpen its readers' awareness of the troubles that face our oceans, and therefore the planet. But Flotsametrics always keeps its sense of fun. How can it not, when the protagonist is a globe-trotting beach boy who is trying to understand, and perhaps save, the world by asking people if they've seen a rubber duck on the beach lately?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.