Whidbey Island waters run dark and deep

By Susan Mador
Feb 19 2005

Along Whidbey Island 's calm east side, depression lingers. But schizophrenia reigns on the west side.

The doctor who came up with this description of local waters doesn't have a medical degree. But Curtis Ebbesmeyer, Ph.D., has the research and experience to support his statements. Ebbesmeyer, a professional oceanographer, has been studying the world's currents and everything that floats on and through them for more than 30 years. The Seattle resident spoke Feb. 5 at Sound Waters, a one-day university sponsored by WSU Island County Beach Watchers.

Currents in Saratoga Passage, on Whidbey's east side, are some of the most sluggish in Puget Sound , Ebbesmeyer said. Just a few miles across the island on the west side, are some of the strongest currents.

Ebbesmeyer knows every twist and turn Whidbey Island currents. He also knows what floats on these currents. His specialty is tracing flotsam and jetsom.

To gather information, Ebbesmeyer uses a message in the bottle technique. He releases marked drift cards from certain locations. People who find them are asked to send in particulars on where they found the card.

Ebbesmeyer uses computer programs to map the flow. No matter how scientific his studies are, Ebbesmeyer loves to take relaxing beach walks.

"I find the coolest stuff on the beach," Ebbesmeyer said. Driftwood and rocks receive scant attention. Instead salt-faded plastic toys, water-logged athletic shoes and personal hygiene items fascinate him. He's known for tracking plastic ducks around the world. A ship lost several containers of the toys when a storm ripped them from the deck during a storm. When these ducks started appearing, Ebbesmeyer began tracking their travels.

He's also tracked lost-at-sea crates of Nike athletic shoes. Ebbesmeyer said Nike is the world's best supporter of gathering drift information. The tongue of every Nike shoe has a discrete number. Ebbesmeyer can call Nike with a list of numbers and find exactly when and where the shoe was lost during transport.

Releasing drift cards at the southern tip of Vancouver Island helped a student of Ebbesmeyer track sewage from Canada . Over several months, the student released driftcards at sewage outflow pipes and other sites along the coast. After crunching numbers, he discovered solid waste substances traveled far and wide.

" Vancouver uses 'dilution is the solution' equation," Ebbesmeyer said. Research showed Vancouver 's untreated sewage enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the best site for widest dispersion of raw waste.

Sewage and duckies aren't the only body of material Ebbesmeyer studies. He's a local expert in bodies which wash ashore. Many police and court systems use his data to look for missing people who are thought to have gone in the drink.

Starting at the location of the body, people use Ebbesmeyer's research to calculate where the person could have entered the water.

Deception Pass may seem like an ideal location to dump a body. Currents there are strongest in Puget Sound , Ebbesmeyer said. "At a speed of eight or nine knots, currents shoot far out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca ," he said. Ebbesmeyer said bodies can sink and drift along the sea floor, remaining submerged for years. But when a body is discovered, Ebbesmeyer can find its origin even after years, so throwing someone off the bridge isn't a sure way to hide a crime.

People wander the beach seeking items more pleasant than corpses. Dedicated beachcombers should make long-range plans. Ebbesmeyer expects debris from the Dec. 26, 2004 , tsunami in Asia to reach Whidbey Island in five years. "Debris floats at 20 miles a day," Ebbesmeyer said. "It takes 20,000 miles to float to Whidbey. Do the math."

It will float from Indonesia to Africa to Antarctica to Mexico to Japan before it floats around Puget Sound , coming ashore anywhere from Deception Pass to Possession Point.

© Copyright 2005 Whidbey News Times

Reproduced with permission
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