Friday, May 24, 2013

Full Fathom Five...

I love to beachcomb. I never visit the shore that I don't come home with booty, my pockets overflowing or even a plastic bag filled with shells, agates, driftwood pieces, sea glass, and more. The sea gives up its treasures, sometimes after many years of hoarding it.

Sea glass is a favorite. It shines when wet and then often dries to a milky hue, having been polished by the sand over time. The great ocean rock tumbler makes beautiful art! There's a science to identifying the different kinds of sea glass. I love the greens best. Occasionally I find blues or reds--rare. In Greece, while spending five days at Kakokefali Lighthouse at Chalkida, I found pottery shards with pretty patterns, which made me wonder: "How old?" The times I've stayed at New Dungeness Light Station on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I've always found sea glass, and other beach treasures. On one walk I found a Japaense toothbrush!

A few days ago I had a conversation over lunch with a colleague at Olympic College where I teach. She teaches English and does a "green" theme for the students' readings. One of the articles her students read is called "Polymers are Forever." (This website has a similar article:  It's a sad and startling informational piece on how we humans have polluted the ocean with plastics, either accidentally and deliberately, and how these plastics degrade into miniscule particles. My friend and I chatted about the good things and bad things that wash up on beaches, and then we admitted there's a lot of stuff floating on the open sea or deposited on the seafloor that people seldom see. "Out of sight, out of mind," as the saying goes....

This reminds me of some briny vocabulary I learned years ago while working at Mystic Seaport Museum. I attended days of training and lectures to prepare me for the big picture of the sailor's life and ships at sea and in port. I worked in numerous exhibits and had to know the background information.

Flotsam: This term is from the old Latin "fluitare," meaning "to float." It refers to anything unnatural floating on the sea, such as the glass fisherman's float in the picture above, a chunk of milled lumber, broken fish nets, stuff that falls off ships and boats, or some of those nasty polymers than reduce themselves to tiny particles and suspend nefariously in seawater, possibly ending up in our seafood. "Flotsam Fish" might be the new item on the menu! Flotsam originally applied to objects remaining after a shipwreck. Today, it's an umbrella term for all junk and treasures floating on the sea. The tsunami in Japan a few years back sent lots of flotsam into the sea, and some of it has come ashore in my state, Washington. The key here is that flotsam ends up in the sea unintentionally. Flotsam happens, you might say.

Jetsam: This is from the old Latin "jacere," meaning "to throw out." It differs from flotsam in that it goes into the sea deliberately. In the days of sail it referred to cargo and goods purposely jettisoned from a vessel to lighten the load and possibly prevent a shipwreck. A big ship rolling in storm waves fares better if its cargo is evenly stowed and not too heavy. Storm waves breaching the deck can steal items too, making them unintentional jetsam. If a sailing ship was becalmed, say in the Horse Latitudes where wind comes at a premium in some seasons, the master might order cargo thrown into the sea. The Horse Latitudes supposedly got their name because cargoes of horses were thrown into the sea here to lighten a sailing ship's load. Such a cruel practice! Sometimes jetsam floats, like flotsam, so unless you know how an object got into the water, it's hard to know which to call it, flotsam or jetsam. NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) images below suggest both. On top is a picture of a NOAA crew pulling up a ball of net, which probably was cut loose by a fishing vessel when it couldn't be winched in. Below that is an undersea view of miscellaneous flotsam and jetsam floating on the sea surface, a view much like a seal or a fish would see. The ocean has a way of corralling this stuff.

Lagan: This is from the Icelandic word "lagnir" for "sea net." It's debris lying on the ocean floor. The earliest Icelanders, a.k.a. Vikings, were great sailors, beachcombers, and salvagers, willing to dive down to the ocean floor to retrieve useful items. They marked these finds with special buoy-like objects called lagnir. All manner of items, good and bad, lie on the sea floor. Some are of great value--amphora, old coins and other treasure, shipwreck remains, valuable cargoes that have sunk. Robert Ballard has made a fortune finding shipwrecks on the sea floor, including the Titanic. She's a very deep and precious pile of lagan for sure! Wrecker is the occupation of pulling up items from shipwrecks or refloating sunken ships. Places like Cape Cod and Key West had dozens of wrecking businesses in the age of sail, and they still have a few. NOAA has special cleanup crews to pull up lagan. Here's a photo of old tires and other trash sunk on the sea floor. For generations, we considered the ocean a big trashcan. We're re-thinking that attitude, I hope.

I wouldn't blame anyone for the piece of flotsam shown below--a message in a bottle washed ashore. (I suppose it becomes beach debris once it comes ashore and is no longer flotsam.) It's romantic, yes, and makes for a great tourist pitch for a place like the Bahamas or Tahiti. But in some cases it's a lifesaving tool or becomes historically revealing. Those Titanic passengers threw bottles into the sea with SOS messages in them. Columbus supposedly dropped one of these littoral letters into the great ocean post on one of his voyages to the New World after a hurricane damaged his ship. Imagine finding that treasure! Ocean research often relies on drogues, special bottles that track ocean currents and storm waves. If you find one of these research bottles, you should fill out the form inside, indicating its location, and return it to NOAA.

A final tidbit, just for fun...
I have in my lighthouse file for Cape Cod's Highland Lighthouse, a cute story I was told by the staff of the Cape Cod National Seashore many years ago. It's a tale about a mother cat and her three kittens that survived a shipwreck in the early nineteenth century. It wasn't uncommon for sailors to have cats aboard old sailing ships. In fact, well-known sailor/author Alan Villiers once said, "Every ship ought to have a cat." Cats are nimble, good climbers, efficient rodent eradicators, and excellent companions. The park service staff on Cape Cod didn't provide specific details about the shipwreck, as they probably didn't know them. This makes me suspect their story is a bit more lore than actual truth. But it probably has a kernel of truth somewhere in it. Anyway...the mother cat and her babies floated to shore in a willow basket, possibly set afloat by the crew to save them. The lightkeeper at Highland Light watched helplessly as the ship broke apart in the late afternoon and then went down in the waning winter light. He went to the beach in the darkness, lantern in hand, to look for survivors. He found none, but the desperate mews of the kittens and their mother were heard, and they were rescued. The lightkeeper adopted them and named the mother Shipwreck. Every lighthouse, just like every ship, needs a cat...or two...or three...

You guessed it--the three kittens were named Flotsam, Jetsam, and Lagan.

This adorable kitty at the tideline is a photo on Tumbler from For excellent information on ocean debris, go to the NOAA Marine Debris Facebook page:

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