I suspect I’m not the only Humboldt-er who finds myself meandering down the beach keeping a gentle eye out for seafaring debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami - you know, a skiff, a soccer ball, perhaps a motorcycle? It’s fascinating to think these wayward objects, gone astray in the midst of one of this century’s worst natural disasters, have managed to negotiate the breadth of the Pacific Ocean and quietly arrive with us years later.
Last Saturday, while my son Sam and I were airing the dogs at Clam Beach, we came across piles of spent fireworks, a sprinkling of snowy plovers and a shit-ton of by-the-wind sailors. We also happened upon a unassuming buoy resting in the sand, covered in curious-looking shellfish.
We hunched down to get a better look, and suddenly noticed the things were moving. And not just moving, but squirming, thrashing, writhing and questing with long, bendy necks and feathery tendrils that poked in and out of a cluster of multi-sized shells. Seriously, they were like little aliens, or Audrey II, the plant from Little Shop of Horrors.
These animals were very, very busy on their slightly battered, basketball-sized world.
I’ve lived in Humboldt County for 35 years and have never seen anything like them. Naturally, Sam whipped out his phone and took a video of the flailing creatures and promptly went home and posted it on Facebook, as one is wont to do these days. We tagged family friend and local ocean afficianado Jennifer Savage to see what she thought. Might they just be invasive, bio-fouling tsunami hitchhikers brought to shore by the weekend’s super moon tides?
Jen forwarded the video to several experts across the state who she knows in her professional capacity as former Northcoast program coordinator at the Ocean Conservancy and current coastal programs director at the Northcoast Environmental Center. Here’s a response she received from California Departmant of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Martha Volkoff:
“Those appear to be Lepas (gooseneck barnacles), the predominant species on many of the items that have landed. While we likely won't be able to determine if this item is tsunami debris, as with all potential tsunami debris please advise the person reporting it to move it out of the tidal zone and dispose of it in the municipal garbage, or contact the manager of the beach and advise them assistance is needed.”
After a bit of online research, I learned that the exotic-looking gooseneck barnacle is actually a pretty common marine crustacean living in temperate seas throughout the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) blog says many of the tsunami debris items they’ve come across have had gooseneck barnacles attached to them.
So, it sounds as if anything is going to be living on tsunami debris, it will be these guys. The good news, NOAA says, is that if they are seafaring crustaceans from the waters of Sendai, they are not an invasive species. They are, however, hermaphrodites, which is always weird. They have a lifespan of up to 20 years. Interesting. Their animated feathery bits are a feeding apparatus. In addition, (although I can imagine few things more heinous than eating a pelagic gooseneck barnacle), they are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.
The first debris from Japan’s “Black Tsunami” landed on on the west coast of North America in March of 2012. Its arrival is slowing, but stuff still sporadically appears on our shores. If you suspect one of your beach finds might just be tsunami debris, you can report it to NOAA at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also investigate other west coast sightings and read stories about it on their marine debris blog