A Campbell River man who found a tsunami debris research transponder holds the electronic components taken from its casing.

Tsunami debris tracking mystery solved

Campbell River man locates transponder high on a beach while hiking the northwest coast of Vancouver Island

A “citizen scientist” and one intrepid television newsman are sharing much of the credit this week after a tsunami debris tracking transponder was recovered in Campbell River following a three-and-a-half-year odyssey across the Pacific Ocean.

A Campbell River man, who wishes to remain anonymous, located the transponder high on a beach while hiking the northwest coast of Vancouver Island on June 22. He tossed it into his truck with other items he collects while beachcombing and returned it to his home, where the device continued to send signals every 90 seconds to researchers tracking the unit.

“It baffled everybody,” said Dr. Samuel Chan of Oregon Sea Grant, who has tracked transponder T-8 from North America in partnership with colleagues in Japan. “Everybody thought it went by helicopter or airplane, but it was a man on foot with a truck.”

The transponder was one of 12 placed into the Pacific in January 2012 by researchers at Japan’s Tottori University for Environmental Studies.

The transponders, resembling two-litre drink bottles, are meant to track the path of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan, as well as to measure ocean temperature and provide researchers information on invasive marine species attaching to debris.

After being contacted by Chan, Ministry of Environment officials issued a press release about the transponder’s mysterious and sudden trip from the west coast to a location in Campbell River.

The unit’s signal pinpointed the device within a 500-metre radius of the intersection of Park and Ebert roads. Gord Kurbis, a CTV news reporter based in Courtenay, actually went door-to-door in the neighbourhood June 25 in an effort to speak with residents and, hopefully, locate the transponder.

He spoke to a woman in one side of a duplex. The resident of the other unit was not at home, but Kurbis thought the property looked promising.

“He seemed to have a collection of nautical stuff,” Kurbis said. “I thought, this looks like a bit of a beachcomer; this is a pretty good bet.”

Over the next several days, the scavenger hunt drew in both government and agency officials and the general public as area media continued to share the case. Helicopter and airline companies were contacted to determine if any of them had flown into or out of the region where the transponder was collected.

Kurbis returned to the neighbourhood on July 1 for a follow-up story, and again found nobody home at the duplex unit. But the next door neighbour emerged to ask if he was still looking for the missing object, and told Kurbis she thought her neighbour had it.

Kurbis finally contacted the man, who was unwilling to appear on camera but who shared his story and turned the transponder over to the reporter.

“The individual who found it is remarkable; we call him a citizen scientist,” Chan told Kurbis. “He’s always been curious about marine debris and what’s in the ocean.”

The man, who has something of a hobby of collecting beach debris, found the transponder while hiking north of Port Alice.

“If I didn’t see the antenna, I would have thought it was a discarded pop bottle,” the man told Kurbis in an audio interview.

The device remained in his truck for a couple of days and on his porch for a couple more before he became curious about the antenna and about a note inside the bottle, which he couldn’t read because of scuffing on the outer casing.

Taking the transponder to his basement, the man opened the bottle to get at the note, which listed a phone number in Japan.

His calls to the number went unanswered, possibly because the time difference meant he was calling in the middle of the night in Japan.

Meanwhile, Chan and his colleagues at Tottori University had been left in the dark as the signal from the device abruptly went silent.

“When he opened it up he unplugged the battery, so it stopped broadcasting to us after June 26,” said Chan, who said researchers continued to focus on the last known location of the signal — even though that was no assurance of T-8’s actual position.

“A unit can be signalling us, but we don’t know if there’s an error in the signal,” said Chan. “Knowing now the signal was coming from very close to his house, we can trust it accurately tells us the whole 10,000-kilometre journey.”

That journey includes a lengthy stay around the islands of Japan, a pass near Midway Island, and a trip down the Washington coast before drifting north to Vancouver Island.

“Believe it or not, this hasn’t been done before,” Chan said. “Well, I’m sure the military has done it, but not with our budget. To continue sending a signal every 90 seconds for three and a half years, over 10,000 kilometres, is remarkable.”

In a phone interview with T-8’s discoverer, Chan determined the unit had collected mineral deposits and a number of gooseneck barnacles.

“That’s not an invasive concern for us, because that’s a species found on both sides of the ocean,” he said.

Despite the activity in his neighbourhood and the news reports, the man did not realize he possessed the object of the search because he had left town for several days to work.

“It seems like there’s a big mystery, but I didn’t even know,” he said. “My neighbour did come to me and said there were newspeople that came around looking for some tsunami thing, and I clued in that was probably it.

“When I got back to town and saw the article in the paper I realized it had expanded to something more than debris on the beach.”

Now Kurbis, who initially started out trying to get a story, continues his role as participant by working with Chan to try to ship the transponder internationally.

“What’s heartening is the fact that so many residents and agency officials came together to help us,” said Chan. “When the press release came out, the media really became scientists with us. Gord Kurbis was remarkable; he was so determined.

“I never would have expected the media to help us find and recover this.”

Asked if he and other researchers were planning a more proactive approach to recovering the other transponders still signalling, Chan gave a qualified response.

“As soon as they get closer to shore, we will,” he said. “Finding a bottle in the ocean is hard, even if it is giving a signal.”