Friday, August 20, 2010

Snark Hunting in the Floating World

In August, Science + Story will be going to the beach--figuratively, anyway. We'll really be on the rocky coast of Maine. Here is the second installment on beach science, on flotsam. You can catch up on this series by reading the earlier post on shells.

I hadn't planned to blog about this until later today, but want to catch the wave--if you'll pardon the expression--of an upcoming segment on Ira Flatow's Science Friday. In today's second hour, 3:00 PM EST, SciFri will interview Karen Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole about plastic in the sea.
Scientists are trying to understand what goes on in and around floating patches of plastic debris in the world's oceans. Results from a 22 year investigation into floating plastic garbage were published this week in the journal Science. The researchers looked at the physics behind the plastic accumulation, its concentration, and biological activity in and around the debris. Interestingly, the researchers found somewhat less plastic than they anticipated. We'll talk to one of the authors of the report [KLL] about the findings.
 I'll be tuning in. You can listen live here. Plastic in the ocean has been much on my mind as I've been reading Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. It was published last year by Smithsonian Books and released in paperback just time for this summer's exodus to the beach.

I confess I've been guilty til now of priveleging marine biology over oceanography, the science of the sea itself. No more. Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano have introduced me to a world of gyres, eddies, meddies, and snarks--the term Ebbesmeyer coined for the water slabs of different salinity and density that drift through the ocean like clouds in the sky. Ebbesmeyer hunts for watery snarks in this mysterious floating world.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, snark hunter. Photo by Rick Rickman/NOAA

As other reviewers have noted, this is a mix of memoir and science, and it works well, as Ebbesmeyer's personal career trajectory traces the growth and maturation of ocean science itself over the last forty years. Ebbesmeyer has become an expert on the behavior of nonliving objects in the ocean, be they sneakers, rubber ducks, messages in bottles, coconuts, or cadavers.

All those stories await you in the book, and Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano tell them well. The parts I want to highlight here are these. The first is the remarkable story of messages in bottles. The practice was popularized and romanticized in the nineteeth century in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, but the deliberate release of messages in bottles may go back centuries--and messages set adrift back before there were bottles. In the nineteenth century, however, messages in bottles, or MIBs, came into their own--caught in a gyre, if you will, of naval ambition. As Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano note, the American, German, and British navies were eager to map the currents of the world's oceans, and bottles were one way to do it. Into the early twentieth century, they released thousands of bottles, casks, and other "deliberate drifters" into the oceans to try and gain a naval advantage.
Photo from

A. W. Fawcett, the chairman of Guinness, the British brewery, used a message in a bottle in a spectacular ad campaign that is still washing ashore today. Between 1954 and 1959, Fawcell arranged to have shipping companies drop fifty thousand commemorative bottles into the sea at eleven sites around the world. The brown bottles were sealed with cork, a metal cap, and a lead wrapper. Inside was a scroll from "King Neptune" marking the bicentennial of the brewery. The bottles were retrieved from all over the world, including a penal colony off the coast of Mexico and remote Coats Island in Hudson Bay, where the Inuit fishermen who chanced on eighty of the bottles "used them for stone-throwing practice until they learned Guinness offered a reward."

The other great story in the book--and it is hard to choose among the many these author tell, --is how the practice of beachcombing is contributing to citizen science around the world. Beachcomber Alert Network and organizations like it are providing researchers with a constant stream of data about ocean currents. For more about the science of "flotsam oceanography," visit For a wonderful read filled with astonishing stories that will transform your next walk on the beach, read Flotsametrics.


1 comment:

  1. I like your mix of science and romance here. Made me wonder why I consider the sea so much more romantic than land. I guess it's that there's so much more undiscovered/unknown in the sea. My sis-in-law has been down on the submarine (I forget it's name0 many times with the Woods Hole group. It sounds so exotic to me, but to her - I think it's just plain hard work! Sounds like they sleep very little.