A Kick Across the Pacific
A soccer ball swept away in Japan’s 2011 tsunami washes ashore in Alaska
PHOTO: David Baxter found the soccer ball and his wife, Yumi, was able to translate the writing.
(Kyodo / Reuters)
MAP: Middleton Island is approximate-
ly 3,100 miles away from Japan.
When a devastating tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2011, teenager Misaki Murakami lost his home and all of his belongings. But this month, one of his prized possessions turned up—3,100 miles away!
Misaki’s soccer ball floated across the Pacific Ocean and washed up on Alaska’s Middleton Island. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it is the first piece of tsunami debris that will be returned to its owner.
Middleton Island, about 70 miles south of the Alaska mainland, is very remote. Only a few people work there, at a Federal Aviation Administration radar facility. One of those workers, David Baxter, found the ball on the beach. His wife, who is Japanese, was able to translate the writing on the ball. It had Misaki’s name, the name of an elementary school in Japan, and good-luck messages.
Misaki, now 16, said classmates gave him the ball as a goodbye gift when he was in third grade and was transferring to another school. He told Japanese public broadcaster NHK that he was surprised to hear the ball had been found.
“I never imagined that my ball had reached Alaska,” Misaki said. “I lost everything in the tsunami, so I’m delighted.”
A few weeks after finding Misaki’s ball, Baxter also found a volleyball with Japanese writing on it. Its owner, 19-year-old Shiori Sato, has also been identified.
According to the Japanese government, the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean. About 70 percent of that debris sank, leaving approximately 1.5 million tons floating. Many of these items are scattered across a large area of the North Pacific.
NOAA, which is in charge of monitoring the debris, said in February that currents would carry much of it to the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington, and Oregon between March 2013 and 2014. But some of the items, including Misaki’s ball, have already made it across the Pacific.
In late March, a fishing vessel that had been swept away in the tsunami was found off the coast of North America. Because it would be too expensive and difficult to salvage the ship, the owner didn’t want it back, and because the drifting ship posed a hazard to other ships in the area, the U.S. Coast Guard sank it.
Other items, such as plastic fishing floats, have washed up in Alaska, but so far they cannot be traced positively to the tsunami. Unless an item has a unique and traceable identifier, it is difficult to tell if it was lost in the tsunami or at some other time.