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An Ever Shifting Sea

Potential tsunami debris next to Robert C. Seamans: Jon Waterman
More potential tsunami debris: a 10-foot tender alongside the Robert C. Seamans. Photo by Jonathan Waterman

For the last few days, fully inured to life-a-tilt and the complex movements of the sea, we have plied south and southwest winds to continue sailing west.  We’re 1,500 miles and 25 days out from California, with 900 miles and 12 days left at sea.  Within a day we plan to turn south toward Hawaii.  It’s still a guessing game on whether we’ll benefit from a northeast or northwest wind that we need to fill the sails to Honolulu.

From the starboard rail yesterday, we watched a tropicbird on the hunt: hovering and dipping and gliding in the lee of our ship.  Suddenly, as flying fish skittered like albino swallows across the swells, the red-billed tropicbird tucked its head and bulleted straight into the sea while a mahi mahi jumped out of the water in a greenish-blue blur and snatched a flying fish.  Sailors on deck whooped; my camera lens clicked, but even at 1/1250 of a second I couldn’t fully capture the action.  Still, I went below feeling privileged to witness the reflexive intuition of predator and prey attuned to their movements against the shifting Pacific.

We spent most of our Saturday afternoon scrubbing the boat.  We carried the galley’s cooking implements to the deck and scrubbed every foot of the ship below: vacuuming ventilators, repairing gray-water pumps, oiling wood, and polishing brass.  All the while, we stood or kneeled wide-legged and braced against the cacophonic rise and fall of an unpredictable ocean.

Then at 1900 (7pm ship time; 6pm Hawaii time) on Saturday, Captain Jason Quilter called an all-hands muster on the quarterdeck.  We huddled to port in the dark with 20-knot winds and shouted out each of our assigned crew numbers; as usual, all were present.  But the situation was unusual.  We’d never been mustered in the evening, and more than a few of us prepared for news of a coming storm, rather than what was announced: a 7.7-magnitude earthquake near Canada’s Charlotte Islands.  The captain—concerned about a tsunami that might damage Honolulu—had received a mariners weather message moments earlier on the ship’s Immarsat C satellite warning system.

Tsunamis travel as fast as jet airplanes across the ocean.  As I lay in my rocking berth at approximately 2130, reading a book with heavy-lidded eyes, I did not feel the inch-high wave that passed beneath our hull.  This surge of energy sped west at more than 400 miles-per-hour as birds flew high and fish dove deep with the knowledge of a quaking earth in their gills.  Two hours later, just before midnight ship’s time, this water-borne energy rose up the slopes of the great underwater mountain of Hawaii in a micro-second.  Gulls and other shorebirds had already innately reached for the safety of sky as the force transmitted through water from a 2,200-mile-distant shifting Canadian ocean floor met the Hawaiian Islands.  Tens of thousands of people (forewarned by the recently installed International Tsunami Warning System) had already fled to high ground.  Fortunately, the wave rose only 2.5 feet above normal tide lines.

Although this earthquake and tsunami caused no significant damage, the catastrophic, 2011 Japanese tsunami—from a more severe earthquake—has left its debris scattered in a thousand-mile-wide, eastward-flowing swath across the northern Pacific.  Reminders of this devastating event crept in Sunday morning, when we pulled alongside another likely piece of last year’s tsunami debris: half of a 9.5 x 5 feet-wide boat.  The red and white, Fiberglass fishing tender, thick with barnacles, had been jaggedly ripped apart by the waves.

We took pictures and video, looked for identifying print, and pushed the wrecked tender away from the hull.  I went back below, to the ship’s library, where I helped Emilee Monson of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry catalog pieces of plastic to be used for public outreach.

Over the course of a couple hours, we plucked out ten different-shaped, 1 to 4 mm-sized pieces from a jar thick with recently dip-netted plastic.  We placed each piece on the compound microscope, focused a laser beam on its surface, then allowed the spectrometer to measure the frequency of light vibrating off each plastic surface.  Throughout, we moved carefully around the delicate equipment and hazardous laser beam, bracing against the swells.  To our eyes through the lens of the microscope, this plastic all looked different: tan, white, moon cratered, or cracked like a dried riverbed.  Profile readouts from the spectrometer allowed us to identify eight of the pieces as high-density polyethylene (HDPE).   Of the two unidentifiable pieces, one appeared to be polystyrene, aka Styrofoam.  Although this is only a random sampling, most of the plastic gathered by SEA in the Atlantic over 25 years is either polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP).

HDPE belongs to the most popularly known plastic family, constituting more than a third of all products manufactured around the world.  It makes up cereal bags, plastic grocery bags, containers of milk and juice, plus any number of household containers.

Elsewhere on board, since our Sundays offer a small respite from net deployments and class time, crew not on watch were getting haircuts on the foredeck, dancing to the engineer’s banjo playing on the quarterdeck, or sewing bags from sailcloth in the eating quarters—all keenly awaiting our evening movie night.  By 2000 hours, the 29 of us not on watch crowded into the saloon around our makeshift, white sheet movie screen.  Someone turned on a fan, the lights went off, and the laptop projector came on.  Swaying with the pitch and yaw of our ship jumping through an ever confused sea, we hooted and cheered at Captain Irving Johnson’s 37-minute, 1929 film.   After all, “Around Cape Horn“ was shot in an age before plastic, when wooden- and steel-hulled ships sailed without radar into the wild and stormy Pacific.