By Ken Campbell
I’m not sure what I was doing on March 11, 2011. I’d like to think it was something important, but who knows. That particular point on the calendar, however, is not just some arbitrary date in Japan. That date is one that will always ring in the collective unconscious.
When the undersea Tōhoku earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit the north coast of Japan on that fateful day, 20,000 people disappeared in a matter of moments. The emotional aftershocks continue from the death and destruction that ensued, reverberating in the minds and hearts of millions. Even now, a year after the tragedy, almost 4,000 people are still listed as “missing.”
What I find most amazing is the idea that something that happened across the ocean, something iterally on the other side of the world, will have an effect on the place where I live—on my life and the lives of those around me.
Because, you see, there are currents in the ocean, dominant water columns that move up and down, from left to right. Whatever. The currents in the north Pacific are, even now, moving the flotsam from the west side of the ocean to the east. Pieces of the human condition, everything from tennis shoes to fishing gear, it’s all on its way over. From the coast of Japan to the coast of North America: Alaska, British Columbia, Washington state.
And that tsunami wreckage debris is drifting toward us ahead of its projected schedule. Our small group of sea kayakers plans to set out to document the flotsam as it begins to come ashore along the remote and roadless Washington coast. Between Neah Bay, at the tip of the peninsula, and Ruby Beach, at the southern end of the roadless section, lies approximately 60 miles of pristine Olympic coastline, much of it inaccessible to foot travel. It is here, on secluded pocket beaches surrounded by soaring sea stacks and intricate rock gardens, that the debris will make landfall.
The team is composed of three experienced professional guides: Jason Goldstein, who currently owns his own guide service and works as a cartographer and GIS specialist; Steve Weileman, a documentary filmmaker and photographer; and myself, author of several books on Pacific Northwest kayaking.
Looking forward to this unique opportunity to combine science and adventure, we’ve done a few shorter trips leading up to the expedition start date on June 9. These “shakedown cruises,” as we call them, help us finalize our equipment list, as well as familiarize us with the survey process. This past weekend, on an overnighter out to Anderson Island in southern Puget Sound, we worked on filming and sound recording techniques. We also set out a sample survey grid at low tide and walked through the NOAA survey protocol that we’ll be using on the coast. That evening, around the fire, we discussed the group gear—water filters, stoves, tarps and the like—and how to divide it up.
In addition to the beach surveys, we’ll be pulling a small trawl net (pictured) on segments of the trip, a fine-mesh net designed to trap tiny pieces of floating plastic. This type of plastic pollution is virtually invisible, but the overall effect of the suspended particulates, as they make their way into the food chain, is staggering. The net has been sent to us by Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute, one of the leading researchers dealing with the problem of micro-plastics. We’re excited and honored to receive scientific advice from Eriksen, as well as from Liam Antrim at the NOAA and Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute.
Ikkatsu is a Japanese word that means “united as one,” which is a concept that the tsunami debris illustrates in a powerful way. This expedition is an attempt to understand how we are connected—one society with another—and how no matter how distant and unconnected something may seem at first glance, we are all riding on the same planet. The vast expanse of the oceans doesn’t keep us apart; it is what joins us together.