A West Coast beachcomber recently passing a quiet afternoon on Maury Island near Tacoma, Wash., was horrified to discover that a shoe he found lying in the sand actually contained a human foot. After alerting local authorities, he also contacted Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a physical oceanographer and publisher of Beachcomber’s Alert, a newsletter comprising a collection of stories having to do with objects drifting in the world’s oceans.
Two investigations followed, one by authorities to determine whose foot it was and why it had been lost and another by Ebbesmeyer to trace the foot’s probable drift history. The investigations are still underway, but Ebbesmeyer figures that the foot, which would have had positive buoyancy because of the rubber/plastic shoe, could have come from as far away as Seattle to the northeast or Olympia to the west; the cities are roughly 50 miles apart.
Tracking objects that float in the world’s oceans is both an occupation and passion for Ebbesmeyer, who responds to requests for ocean current information from curious beachcombers and forensic investigators all over the world. “People find all sorts of crazy things on beaches and their origins are often a mystery,” said Ebbesmeyer, who was just recently presented with a curious length of driftwood while at a conference in Cocoa Beach, Fla. The five-foot-long log was inscribed with a message that scientists believed was generated more than 100 years ago and probably drifted from Indian Key to Cocoa Beach, Fla.: “Whereas I now lay near starvation and perish, I, Morris A. Taylor of Overland, Missouri USA, do establish this as my last will and testament To my brother, Roy D Taylor, I leave and bequeath $10,000. The entire remainder of my estate I leave and bequeath to my beloved wife Karen Houseman Taylor.” The log was found in 1964 and its origin never determined; Ebbesmeyer proposed that its probable ocean route from the Keys took two months.
Another drifting mystery in which Ebbesmeyer was asked to contribute involved a dead man in a survival suit, who was found on a beach in Hawaii in 1982. The suit, which was determined to have been purchased in Tacoma, Wash., in 1979, was not marked with a vessel name. The man was missing an arm (from an injury inflicted while he was alive), and he had foreign dental work, according to the coroner. But his identity is still unknown. Ebbesmeyer believes his body floated for two years from the Gulf of Alaska before washing up in Hawaii.
Contact Ebbesmeyer with information on any of the three above mysteries or regarding other floating detritus at email@example.com.