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Suspected tsunami debris collected in Hilo


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Jesse Ontiveros walks the shoreline near Four Mile beach in Keaukaha at least once a week looking for puka shells and other “treasures” the sea casts ashore. He and his wife, Evelyn, turn their collections into decorative displays and crafty furnishings for their home in Pepeekeo.

They’ve gathered a lot of beach glass, driftwood and shells, but never any tsunami debris — at least as far as Ontiveros knows.

On Dec. 21, after some stormy surf, Ontiveros found a pair of dark gray plastic floats, or buoys of some kind, each about one foot in diameter, and a flimsy blue rubber boot. They were a little unusual, but he wasn’t thinking tsunami debris.

“I thought it was treasure,” he said.

Ontiveros took the floats home, attached a chain and hung them in his yard from a cherry tree. Then he didn’t think much more about them until he opened Tuesday’s Tribune-Herald.

“They had a picture of tsunami debris on Page A3 that looked just like what I found,” Ontiveros said. “When I saw that picture I said, ‘Oh my.’”

Ontiveros went back outside to take a closer look. Several small barnacles were attached to the floats he found but there were no visible markings or lines attached. When he found them, “there was just these and a blue rubber boot on the beach … about 100 feet apart.”

An estimated 5 million tons of debris was washed into the sea when a devastating tsunami struck Japan in March 2011. Most of the debris sank almost immediately, scientists say, but about 1.5 million tons could be drifting toward the western coasts of the mainland U.S., Canada and Hawaii, where debris has already been seen.

But there is no estimate of how much debris is still floating after a year at sea. Scientists say it’s no longer concentrated in a mass, but scattered across an area of the North Pacific roughly three times the size of the continental U.S.

Of the more than 1,400 debris sightings reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through Nov. 29, only 17 objects have been traced back to the March 2011 tsunami, including small fishing boats, soccer balls, a dock and a shipping container housing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with Japanese license plates.

Four pieces of Japanese tsunami debris have been confirmed in Hawaii, said Deborah Ward, spokeswoman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Another two that are suspected to be tsunami debris are still pending confirmation, she said. None of the sightings was on Hawaii Island.

The four confirmed items have arrived in Hawaii since September, including a large blue plastic bin, a fishing boat recovered 700 miles north of Maui by a Hawaii longline fisherman, a skiff found at Midway Atoll, and a skiff in pieces found at Kahana Bay, Oahu.

Ontiveros wasn’t sure what he should do with his find, if anything, after seeing the newspaper photo. “I don’t know. That’s why I called you guys.”

Ontiveros wondered about the possibility of harmful radioactivity, but scientists have not detected abnormal amounts of radiation in the debris collected thus far. The likelihood of a harmful amount of radioactivity remaining in tsunami debris after drifting thousands of miles across the ocean is “very low to non-existent,” said Cliff Inn, DLNR Boating Safety Education Specialist.

The DLNR is the lead agency for tsunami debris in Hawaii, while NOAA is the primary research agency for marine tsunami debris.

NOAA recently received a $5 million grant from the government of Japan in November to track and remove tsunami debris in the United States, and in July NOAA announced it was releasing $50,000 to the state of Hawaii for marine debris clean-up activities.

Ward said the DLNR will match the grant for a $100,000 fund to assist community groups that clean beaches, citing the Big Island’s Hawaii Wildlife Fund, which conducts regular cleanups at local beaches, as a model.

The DLNR also will be requesting a $2 million budget from the Legislature in January to be earmarked for tsunami response activities throughout the state, Ward said.

Meanwhile, anyone like Ontiveros who thinks he may have found Japanese tsunami debris should call the DLNR at 808-587-0400, or send information about the debris and photos to and

NOAA also maintains a website with up-to-date information about marine debris at

Email Hunter Bishop at


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