After Hours

Keeping current

What name-brand cargo spill did Curtis Ebbesmeyer use to demonstrate his current tracking technique?

We asked what name brand products-turned-beachcomber-quarry did oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer use to demonstrate his technique of employing lost ocean cargo to track ocean currents.

In May 1990, the freighter Hansa Carrier lost 21 containers of cargo. Five of the containers carried high-priced Nike sneakers and work boots, each of which bore a unique serial number that identified it as part of the lost production lot. Ebbesmeyer used these serial numbers to track where the shoes washed ashore.

The floatation-friendly footwear was a beachcomber's delight. Several coast scavengers began to exchange information on the size and style of Nikes they found in order to recover complete pairs. Inspired by these efforts, Ebbesmeyer used the found Nike data to track the motion of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a submerged ocean current that's famous for transporting oceanic trash collected from dumping and spills between the U.S. and Asia.

When the technique proved successful, Ebbesmeyer also used other Pacific shipwrecks and cargo spills of uniquely identifiable products to track the gyre through the trash it sends back to land. Besides the famous Nikes, Ebbesmeyer and his associated shore-salvagers have tracked lost LEGO toys and hockey pads.

Ebbesmeyer's newsletter, Beachcombers Alert, and Web site are received and viewed by subscribers and visitors who hope to aid science and earn some bragging rights—and maybe even find a slightly waterlogged pair of fashionable footwear.

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