Heads don't roll; instead they float

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2000

A flotilla of ``Rugrats'' doll heads is floating toward Alaska.

Tens of thousands of the plastic heads - meant for Mattel's Tommy Pickles dolls, based on an animated TV show - spilled from a container ship in the Pacific, said Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Two heads were found in Oregon, one in Washington and 13 in British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands.

``We think there's a big patch just waiting offshore to bump into Alaska somewhere,'' said Ebbesmeyer. ``The heads are about the size of a coconut, without a husk.''

It's not the first time toys have migrated north. In November 1992, a flock of yellow rubber duckies landed on the beach south of Sitka. Over the next nine months, 400 more duckies beached themselves from Cordova to Coronation Island in the southeastern Gulf of Alaska.

Many more floated on by, said Ebbesmeyer, who studies ocean currents by tracking the flow of items lost at sea, including hockey gloves, Nike shoes and the rubber duckies. The ducks were caught in the Arctic ice and slowly drifted across the polar cap with the ice floes, a journey of five years.

``It's about time for them to pop out of the Arctic ice and be found in the North Atlantic,'' said Ebbesmeyer, who is awaiting new reports of the wandering ducks. He tracks the finds through his newsletter, Beachcombers Alert, and Web site, www.beachcombers.org.

Alaska is a particularly good place to beachcomb because currents drive items from all over the North Pacific to the vast beaches, Ebbesmeyer said. It took only 2 years for a bottle dropped by Japanese students to be found in Southeast's Cube Cove. It was the second bottle found after the students threw 750 into the sea in 1984 and 1985 to study the Kuroshio Current. The Kuroshio is a strong, warm current that crosses from Japan to the Queen Charlotte Islands and splits, half flowing south and half flowing north to Alaska. Only 49 of the bottles were ever returned, so more may still be waiting to be found, Ebbesmeyer said.

Ebbesmeyer knows of about 100 serious beachcombers in Alaska who have contacted him about strange items they found.

``A lot of places they get haven't really been searched much, so they find the neatest stuff,'' Ebbesmeyer said.

For example, a woman near Prince William Sound found a bottle buried in the sand. She opened it and dried the waterlogged message.

``It was a message from the Imperial Russian Navy dated 1912,'' said Ebbesmeyer, who traced it to Sakhalin Island, east of Siberia and north of Japan.

``There's things out there that are probably a lot older than that,'' Ebbesmeyer said. ``It's just a matter of seeing them and then taking an interest in them.''

One of the most recent unusual finds was a note on a coconut found by Ron Hulse in Icy Bay, northwest of Yakutat. Hulse, who lives in Juneau, found the foot-long coconut while working on a tugboat to free a grounded ship Feb. 29. He was looking for glass floats when he spotted the coconut among the tangle of lost line and crab pots.

One side of the coconut is painted white, with a faded message written in black marker: ``Dear Steve, The weather is great. . . .''

Coconut post is unusual, but not unheard of, Ebbesmeyer said.

``Coconuts are as good as a bottle,'' Ebbesmeyer said. ``Probably tougher.''

Coconuts float for at least 30 years without their husk, Ebbesmeyer said. He knows because a fellow scientist floated a coconut for 30 years, changing the water each month. The coconut never sank, but his friend finally retired.

If Steve's coconut came from Hawaii, it traveled for six to seven years to reach Alaska. The Philippines or southern Japan might be more likely, Ebbesmeyer said. Those regions also have coconuts, and the voyage from there to Alaska via the sea currents takes about four years.

In general, messages cast into the sea have a 1 percent to 15 percent chance of getting a response, depending in part on the message, Ebbesmeyer said.

``If that coconut said `President Clinton, when you get this, please reply,' it would be a lot more interesting perhaps.''

Ebbesmeyer's had reports of other coconuts. In 1979 a Japanese ferry company put engraved aluminum plaques on several thousand coconuts and tossed them overboard. Some are still floating around, more than 20 years later. Someone else put red hearts on a number of coconuts and let them sail as a friendship gesture between the United States and Japan, Ebbesmeyer said.

``There's more to coconuts than first meets the eye,'' he said.

Probably the most famous coconut message was sent by a Japanese soldier stranded on an island by McArthur's invasion during World War II. The soldier knew he would never see his family again, so he carved a message into a husked coconut and set it adrift. About 35 years later a fisherman found the coconut and brought it to the soldier's widow.

``That was the last message she ever had from her husband,'' Ebbesmeyer said.

Anyone who finds coconuts, Tommy Pickles heads or another unusual item on the beach should note where and when it was found and send a message to Ebbesmeyer - by normal post, please - at 6306 21st Ave. NE, Seattle, Wash., 98115.



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