Tsunami debris arriving along SLO County coast?

Lorrie Snyderr of Los Angeles holds a 5-foot-around fishing net float she found on Moonstone Beach in Cambria on May 7. The float has Japanese characters molded into it.
Lorrie Snyderr of Los Angeles holds a 5-foot-around fishing net float she found on Moonstone Beach in Cambria on May 7. The float has Japanese characters molded into it. betling@thetribunenews.com

It was getting on toward sunset on Monday, May 7, and Lorrie Snyderr, on a visit to Cambria from Los Angeles, was checking out the view from the bluff at Moonstone Beach, near the steps at the parking lot by the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek.

Peering through the gloaming at the shoreline, she made out a dark mass, half in, half out of the lapping waves. Thinking it might be a marine mammal, she made her way onto the beach.

When she got there, she found a large bluish-green ball, 5 feet around, made of a heavy plastic or fiberglass material, with two pairs of large “ears” with holes where ropes could be attached.

It also had the image of ocean waves with gulls soaring above molded into it, the measurement “488MM” (the ball’s diameter in millimeters) — and what appeared to be Japanese characters.

It turned out to be the largest of three items found in 11 days on North Coast shores that might — might — have been an initial blip in the transoceanic travels of a field of debris washed from Japanese shores by the horrific tsunami of March 11, 2011.

The other two items were found farther north, both just north of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.

A large hand-soap container with Japanese labeling was picked up near the old Piedras Blancas Motel by Bruce Mundt of Cambria on April 27. It was encrusted with crustaceans, evidence, he theorized, of a long time in the water.

Denise Kocek, another Cambria resident, discovered a large red Japanese light bulb on a sand beach just north of the lighthouse on May 6.

Were they washed away from Japan by the tsunami, a faint echo of the devastation wrought there that killed more than 16,000 people?

We can’t know for sure.

It’s earlier than experts predicted debris would reach California’s coastline.

Estimates are about 5 million tons were washed away. About 70 percent sank near Japan, leaving about 1.5 million tons afloat.The bulk of the debris, it’s known, is north of Hawaii.

High “windage” items, which sit high in the water and can be moved along, sail-like, by the wind, are expected to hit our coast first.All three of the items found locally fit that profile. All are hollow and would have floated well.

So was an empty bottle of Japanese dish soap found in the Santa Cruz area in March, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

Verified tsunami debris has been rolling up in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, including soccer and basketballs, a 165-foot fishing boat, a 66-foot metal-and-concrete dock and a motorcycle (inside a container).

“Beachgoers may notice a gradual increase in debris on beaches over many years, in addition to marine debris that normally washes up, depending on where ocean currents carry it,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

An International Pacific Research Center simulation shows debris hitting the California coast in “Year 2” — which began in March. The peak would be in “Year 3.” If that turns out to be correct, we’ll be seeing more debris through next year, then finds will taper off.

Speaking in San Simeon recently, Holly Lohuis, a marine biologist, diver and field producer for Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, said Japanese trash shows up all along the coast fairly regularly.

She said most tsunami debris is expected to land from Monterey north — and not until late 2013 or later.

All the same, just last Friday, Heal the Bay and NOAA set up two debris-monitoring stations in Palos Verdes and Malibu, according to KABC in Los Angeles.

There’s a lot more information at the NOAA website at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris.

If you find tsunami debris, send an email to disasterdebris@noaa.gov. The Tribune would like to know about it, too; email us at betling@thetribunenews.com or call 927-8895.

Seems like local beachgoers will be finding a lot more on the coast in coming years than moonstones and elephant seals.

Kathe Tanner contributed to this article. Bert Etling is managing editor of The Cambrian, a community weekly published by The Tribune.