FORKS — From a distance, John Anderson thought he had spotted another plastic float, much like the hundreds he has gathered since tsunami debris began washing ashore along the northern coast of Washington nearly a year after the 2011 earthquake that struck eastern Japan.
He got closer, reaching behind a log that spring to discover one of his most memorable finds in three decades of beachcombing: a volleyball covered in Japanese inscriptions. Some of the writing, faded by the sun, was illegible. Other characters, once Anderson scraped away barnacles, were surprisingly clear.
“This was a shocker,” Anderson said. “I wondered whose ball it was and whether they were still alive.”
On March 12, 2011, the 9.0 quake off the coast of Japan triggered a powerful tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people as it transformed large swaths of coastal communities into giant debris fields. Survivors’ cellphone videos captured the terrifying movements of the ocean as dark, raging waters — filled with boats, houses and cars — pushed onshore.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, those images also were powerful reminders of the tsunamis that have struck our coasts in centuries past and are predicted to hit again.
Two years later, large areas of shore in Japan have been largely cleared of rubble, yet flotsam that made a trans-Pacific journey continues to wash up on U.S. and Canadian coasts. Federal officials predict this debris will continue to sporadically land on to beaches for years to come.
So far, only 21 items have been definitively declared tsunami debris by U.S. and Canadian officials who — with the help of the Japanese consulates — have been able to identify owners.
They include a motorcycle, a plastic tote and a 65-foot-long stretch of dock from the city of Misawa that lodged along a remote stretch of Olympic Peninsula shoreline in December. In the coming weeks, that dock will be cut up and hauled away by helicopter in a $628,000 salvage effort largely financed by the Japanese government.
“We don’t like to leave a mess,” said Tomoko Dodo, acting Japanese consulate general in Seattle. His country has donated $5 million to debris cleanup in the U.S. and another $1 million in Canada.
“(U.S. officials) say it is not our fault, and we agree with them,” Dodo said. “I think that it is a goodwill gesture. We want to show the United States our gratitude for the support we received from your country during the tsunami.”
Lost and found
A handful of items have been returned to Japan in the past year for long-shot reunions with owners.
A yellow buoy retrieved in Alaska was emblazoned with a large Japanese character, Kei, and traced to Sakiki Miura, a widow who had used the float as part of a sign for a restaurant destroyed in the tsunami.
In June, Miura was overjoyed to regain the buoy and decided to reopen the restaurant.
“Kei-Chan has returned,” she tearfully declared, according to The Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
Anderson of the Forks area is planning to go to Japan this summer with filmmakers producing a tsunami documentary titled “Lost & Found” in the hope of reuniting the volleyball with its owner.
So far, a translator’s review of the inscriptions found a few partial names, and well-wishes that make it appear the volleyball was a farewell gift, possibly to a graduating student, from other team members.
“I’m sure you will have a great life,” said one inscription.
“I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your new endeavor,” said another.
But so far, no owner has been identified.
“There have got to be other teams that they played that would recognize those names from somewhere that didn’t get wiped out. You would think so,” Anderson said.
Two Washington kayakers who surveyed the coast in the summer of 2012 found a soccer ball with an inscription that was traced to a team in a town on the northeast coast of Japan.
During one of their survey trips, they also came upon an eerie scene: a pile of house timbers that contained a child’s toilet, a bottle of cough syrup, a laundry hamper and a piece of a washing machine.
“It was one of those slowly developing things. We realized we were in someone’s bathroom, in someone else’s house,” recalled Ken Campbell, a kayaker who has produced a documentary about the surveys called “The Roadless Coast.”
Federal and state officials caution that it is difficult — and often impossible — to determine just what debris came from the tsunami and what is part of the broader stew of plastics and other items carried by Pacific currents toward the northern coast of Washington. There, some of the debris blows ashore, and the rest heads in gyres that loop south along the West Coast of the U.S. and north to Alaska.
For the collector
For Anderson, through decades of beachcombing, the ocean’s debris has yielded plenty of treasures, many of which have been put on display at his homestead just outside Forks.
In his front yard, a towering beachcomber’s monument made of thousands of floats rises like some kind of maritime totem pole. In an upstairs loft, his collection includes sake bottles thrown from ships, Nike shoes and thousands of other items.
This has given Anderson a keen sense of the ebb and flow of marine debris. In the past 18 months, the pace of his beachcombing finds has picked up dramatically with many items that appear likely to have come from Japan.
Last week on stroll along Second Beach near La Push, Anderson’s found a chunk of what once appeared to be a dock, house beams with the notches typical of Japanese construction, a black float like the type used by Japanese oyster farms and bottles bearing Japanese markings.
Trapped within the driftwood, Anderson found hunks, pellets and slivers of blue, yellow and white foam insulation, which were among the first objects to arrive more than a year ago and continue to show up on the beaches.
“I’ve seen pockets of Styrofoam packed 2 feet deep,” Anderson said. “Before the tsunami, I never saw anything like that.”