PENINSULA — Beachcombing experts say this could be the best winter in generations for finding Japanese glass fishing floats on Washington’s outer coast beaches — potentially including some worth thousands of dollars.
A dock, a small refrigerator, a mannequin head and lots and lots of styrofoam are just some of the unfathomable array of items that were sent to sea and were eventually stranded on West Coast beaches following Japan’s 2011 historic earthquake and tsunami.
Some of the debris — such as the mannequin head and a soccer ball — were fascinating pieces of a puzzle that may never come together to render a full image, and others — such as the dock and styrofoam — left nothing but questions about how to dispose of it and whether more of its kind is on its way.
But all of last year’s “high windage” flotsam — lighter items that float on the water’s surface and are pushed by the wind as far as 25 miles in one day — may have cleared the way for what could be a windfall of a certain type of “low windage” debris: Glass floats.
According to predictions from Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, this winter’s tides could result in an opportunity for beachcombers to seek out and claim Japanese glass floats in unprecedented numbers — also due in part to the tsunami.
In the October-December issue of his Beachcombers’ Alert newsletter, Ebbesmeyer explained that following the availability of mass-produced plastic floats in the 1960s, Japanese fishermen deemed glass floats to be outdated. As the plastic floats were rotated into use, the glass floats were discarded as garbage, being abandoned in the weeds around marinas.
110 million were made
Ebbesmeyer says Japanese glass artisans have hand-blown an estimated 110 million glass balls since 1911. He hypothesizes that when March 2011 tsunami waves inundated the coasts of Japan, they swept up the abandoned floats and brought them out to sea.
NOAA predicts tsunami debris will show up on Washington shores intermittently during the next several years. However, it is unknown where and what types of debris might arrive. The Japanese government has estimated that the tsunami may have generated as much as 25 million tons of debris.
In October 2011, the large black oyster buoys started to come ashore, with the most arriving between December through April, according to Ebbesmeyer.
The initial Ocean Surface CURent Simulator (OSCURS) projections for the estimated arrival of low-windage debris was this October, but Ebbesmeyer has not received word of any findings yet.
Though he feels we are in the midst of a lull in the discovery of debris, Ebbesmeyer says that if his predictions are correct, our winter storms could bring beachcombers hundreds of the collectible glass balls, something he described as being a “once in a lifetime” type of experience for the record books.
“[The low-windage debris] didn’t go away,” he states. “The only other thing I can think of is the Garbage Patch sucked it in, but I find that hard to believe. When the Pineapple Express finally starts kicking in, I feel that’s when we’ll start seeing stuff … This is probably going to be the low-windage debris, like those glass balls. That’s what I think; glass balls are typically low-windage debris.
“If that’s true, then the glass balls may signal the arrival of the main mass of debris. So I’m asking beachcombers, if they start seeing more glass balls, to report them. Because people are finding very few right now, and any uptick in the amount that are found would be big news. If my hypothesis is right, people could find hundreds in a day like back in the ’50s.”
Anyone who finds a glass float is encouraged to log onto www.flotsametrics.com or email Ebbesmeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Floats spotted at sea
Alan Rammer, who has written two books on glass floats and was one of the founders of the Ocean Shores Beachcomber Fair, says he has already received reports of glass float sightings from miles out in the ocean.
“Basically, I have collected for 41 years, so I’ve got connections all over the world,” he explains. “And a couple of my friends have gone to Japan in past years to go through the old fishermen’s sheds. When the high-seas fisheries ended in ’93 — they used glass floats to fish for tuna — the glass floats became obsolete, so they were stored in their warehouses … They are still used for near shore fisheries, but the mass volumes of them were no longer needed.”
Rammer says a couple of his friends went to Japan and received permission from fishermen to look through the dilapidated and run-down sheds to find rare glass floats — which the Japanese referred to as “gomi” or garbage — to buy or trade.
“In the tsunami, a lot of these villages washed away, and with them all the contents of those sheds,” says Rammer. “What’s interesting is the fishermen I’ve talked to — I live in Aberdeen — this past spring and fall they were picking up the big glass balls in the tuna grounds about 30 to 50 miles offshore.”
Rammer says some of his friends went on an Alaska cruise and spotted the floats in the Gulf of Alaska as well.
Lots of goodies
“I have heard from a substantial amount of sources that tell me they’re out there, it’s just that the currents that need to bring them ashore,” says Rammer. “Based on what the local fishermen and the people on the cruise ships are telling me, we’re going to see a lot of unusual things this winter. I think we’re going to see lots of goodies, besides glass floats, but things we never see here.”
“There’s a whole science how glass floats beach themselves,” he adds. “When an event starts, the big balls will come first, then the medium ones, then the smaller ones and the rolling pins.”
In addition to being source of excitement to all who are lucky enough to capture one, glass floats can also be pretty valuable. Ebbesmeyer knows of some glass balls that have sold for $10,000 in the past five years.
“There’s an 18-inch rolling pin float, it’s 5 inches in diameter, and they come in a variety of colors, and I have seen them selling for $2,000 a piece,” he states. “If they start coming in big numbers, there’s some serious, serious money to be made before the demand goes down.”
Rammer says one particularly rare find are Russian glass floats from 1920s and 1930s, which can be identified by a sickle and hammer near the seal button.
“Everyone thinks the big one is the most valuable, but the biggest indicator is the color, the shape and the markings,” he explains.
Rammer adds that often people don’t know the value of the floats they sell, “Three of the four rarest glass floats in the world — three of the four most spendiest — were found in Grayland, Westport and Copalis Beach.”
“I’m telling beachcombers, ‘Keep your eyes peeled’,” says Ebbesmeyer. “I tell beachcombers to take with them a big trash bag and pick up all that styrofoam — for every bag of stryofoam you are rewarded with a glass ball.”
And those who do find their rewards are asked to contact Ebbesmeyer for record-keeping purposes, “Even if they find one or two, report it, because that’s more than normal.”