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The Oregonian
Thursday, August 13th, 2009
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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

Oceanographer Follows the Flotsam Trail to Understanding

A review by Katie Schneider

You may have heard the saga of the seafaring Nikes. On May 27, 1990, a cargo vessel en route to Los Angeles hit a sudden storm. Five containers of Nike shoes washed overboard. The next winter, shoes showed up on Vancouver Island beaches.

As winds shifted, so did the path of the Nikes, until thousands landed on the Oregon coast. The phenomena caught the attention of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Using tracking numbers on the shoes combined with information provided by Nike, he began to chart the precise path the shoes had taken, thus beginning a midlife specialty in floating objects.

In Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, Ebbesmeyer teams up with Seattle science writer Eric Scigliano to deliver a compelling story of the ocean and what it means to us. Ebbesmeyer shows how the continents have always been connected. Materials like coconuts and bamboo have floated from one place to another. Columbus knew it. So did the Vikings and the Greeks. It's only lately that we've come to understand that floating objects travel through great whorls called gyres, where they can sometimes be stuck for decades or more.

Nowadays the gyres are collecting garbage, including the detritus from storm-tossed cargo ships. While the Nikes made a great story, Junk Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii sees tons of plastic wash ashore each year. Where once highly prized hardwood from Oregon drifted onto the sands, now it is "a stewpot of tiny plastic chips, rippling with the waves and wash-back. I could not help thinking of a bizarre party, or parade," Ebbesmeyer writes. "The sea was showering confetti on us, saluting the world we'd made by throwing bits of it back at us."

Ebbesmeyer is a familiar figure on Northwest beaches. Co-author Scigliano describes seeing him at a beachcomber's fair in Ocean Shores, Wash. As participants gathered trash, they brought it to Ebbesmeyer for analysis. "Though (Ebbesmeyer) would blush at such terms," Scigliano writes in his forward, "to a far-flung community of beachcombers, ocean watchers, and amateur 'flotsamologists,' he is a guru and oracle -- the man who taught them to read flotsam and love the ocean more deeply."

Flotsametrics is filled with extraordinary stories of floating objects: Nikes, islands, body parts, glass floats, cremated ashes. It is also a scientific book for laymen, describing ocean phenomena (like why the Azores are a magnet for the floating world) in a highly readable style. Most profoundly, it is a call to understanding. "We will only survive upon this water-blessed planet," Ebbesmeyer concludes, "if we listen to our original mother, the great ocean and the song she sings to us in the music of the gyres."

Katie Schneider reviews Pacific Northwest books for The Oregonian.

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