Floating doll heads bobbing toward Alaska

Posted: Monday, April 10, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

JUNEAU (AP) -- 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 already have been 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, who tracks ocean currents. ''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 rubber duckies landed on the beach south of Sitka. Over the next nine months, 400 more yellow duckies beached themselves from Cordova to Coronation Island in the southeastern Gulf of Alaska.

Many more floated on by, said Ebbesmeyer, whose research uses the flow of items lost at sea, including hockey gloves, Nike shoes and the rubber duckies. Many of the ducks were caught in the Arctic ice and have slowly drifted across the polar cap with the ice floes, a journey that takes about five years.

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

Alaska is a particularly good place for beach treasure hunters because currents propel items here from all over the North Pacific, Ebbesmeyer said.

It took only 2 1/2 years for a bottle dropped by Japanese students to be found in Southeast Alaska'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 returned, 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.

One woman near Prince William Sound found a bottle buried in the sand. She opened it and found a waterlogged paper. She dried it out.

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

''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.''

Another unusual find 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 amid 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, Ebbesmeyer said.

Ebbesmeyer's has 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 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.

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