Alaska boy finds plastic card 33 years after it was set afloat

SITKA, Alaska — The red plastic drift card was released near Kodiak in May 1979.

It was one of thousands NOAA sent into the waters around Alaska in the late 1970s and '80s.

NOAA was studying ocean currents as part of a project to determine what might happen if there were an oil spill in Alaska.

This particular drift card, stamped with a serial number, was released in Shelikov Strait, between mainland Alaska and Kodiak Island, on May 5, 1979, as a NOAA vessel sailed from Anchorage to the Bering Sea.

And almost exactly 33 years later, Emmitt Andersen, a 12-year-old student at Blatchley Middle School, found the card on the beach at Sealion Cove.

Emmitt, an avid beachcomber, went out to explore near the northwest tip of Kruzof Island with his father Steve and some family friends on April 1.

He said they weren't after anything in particular.

"We never know what we're going to find," he said during a recent visit to the Sentinel's office. "I just like to find stuff. When I don't find stuff I'm not very happy."

After the hike from Kalinin Bay, Emmitt set out along the beach while other members of the group started a fire. A few minutes later he came across the piece of red plastic sitting among some drift logs that had washed up on the shore. He brought it back to the fire and cleaned off some mold and seaweed. The card's serial number could still be made out and it said the finder could collect a $1 reward by notifying NOAA.

"He didn't want to do it," Steve Andersen said. "He thought he was going to lose it."

Emmitt may have been reluctant to call NOAA, but his father wanted to know the story behind the drift card. It took a few phone calls, but he finally found someone at a NOAA office in Washington state who was aware of the project, which had long since been disbanded. That NOAA official referred Andersen to Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the well-known oceanographer.

It didn't take Ebbesmeyer long to figure out where this card had been released.

"I knew exactly what notebook to look in," Ebbesmeyer said. "This particular release was made on the way up to the Bering Sea."

When NOAA shut down the drift card project after running out of funding, Ebbesmeyer inherited the data. And he was able to email the Andersens with the exact coordinates where Emmitt's card was released back in 1979.

"It's a great find," Ebbesmeyer said. "The truth is, it's impossible to know exactly where it went (before it was found)."

But Ebbesmeyer has some theories.

He said these drift cards have shown up all around coastal Alaska, and some have washed up in France, the United Kingdom and Norway, pulled up and over the North Pole and into the North Atlantic by strong ocean currents. Cards that made it to the Atlantic were probably released in the Bering Sea, where the prevailing drift is north, Ebbesmeyer said.

The drift card Andersen found most likely spent time in either of two patches of drifting flotsam, the turtle gyre or the Aleut gyre, he said.

Both are flotsam routes powered by massive ocean currents. Sitka sits on the Aleut gyre, which runs roughly from Southeast Alaska, up past Kodiak to the Aleutians, along the coast of Japan and back toward the West Coast of the United States. Ebbesmeyer said it takes about three years to make the 8,000-mile loop. The turtle gyre, a 12,000 mile loop, goes from Japan, down past Vancouver Island to Hawaii and back.

Ebbesmeyer said Andersen's drift card likely floated at least 2,000 miles. But beyond that it's impossible to know where it went. Ebbesmeyer uses weather data to simulate ocean currents and said he could find out much more about the drift card's travel using that program.

But right now, he said, he's swamped with reports relating to another project, charting the flow of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

"It's probably a day of computer time," Ebbesmeyer said. "We'll probably run the simulation at some point in the future."

One thing Ebbesmeyer knows for sure: plastic can last a long time in the ocean. He said Emmitt Andersen's drift card is the oldest to be reported found in the North Pacific. Ebbesmeyer has another one that was found after floating for 31 years. But Emmitt's find beats that by almost two years. After seeing a picture of the drift card, Ebbesmeyer said it was in pretty good condition, an indication it may have been buried on a beach for some time, rather than floating in the open ocean.

In the 33 years since it was set adrift, the card could have made several circles around the North Pacific, the oceanographer said.

But it's still not close to the oldest piece of plastic flotsam Ebbesmeyer has documented.

In 2004, scientists conducting a necropsy on a baby albatross found dead on Midway Island found a piece of plastic that Ebbesmeyer helped trace to an American PBY aircraft downed in World War II.

Emmitt Andersen said he counts the drift card among his "coolest" beachcombing finds. He learned about beachcombing from his grandfather, Wake Andersen, who has an extensive collection of Japanese glass balls. To date, Emmitt has found only one of those. And he's always on the lookout for more.

He didn't want to say too much about his favorite beachcombing spots, but said the beaches south of town are fun to explore.

He sometimes uses Google Earth to scout beaches before heading out with his dad, but said the photographs are sometimes out of date and not always reliable. His face lit up when asked if he had followed the story of the Japanese "ghost" tanker that was floating toward Sitka when the Coast Guard sank it earlier this month.

"That was going to be our ship," he said, explaining that he had hoped to have a look aboard the vessel.

Emmitt said one spot he would like to visit is Kayak Island, located near Cape St. Elias. He has heard reports of bags full of glass balls being taken off the remote spot in the Gulf of Alaska. And he's eager to see for himself.

For now, he might have to settle for trips closer to town.

He said he was hopeful get out on the water this weekend, after Little League opening day.