Secrets of lost ghost ship revealed

This drifting Japanese squid trawler was photographed by an RCAF surveillance aircraft about 140...

This drifting Japanese squid trawler was photographed by an RCAF surveillance aircraft about 140 nautical miles (260 km) from Cape Saint James, on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

Simon Kent, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:18 PM ET

TORONTO - It was almost as if the Marie Celeste had sailed back from the watery pages of history.

Seemingly, all of Canada saw the picture last Sunday of the 50-metre-long Japanese squid trawler adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

It was photographed by an RCAF surveillance aircraft about 260 km from Cape Saint James, on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii, B.C.

No crew, no navigation lights burning, no nets over the side and not a single sign of life. Just streaks of rust scarring a once pristine hull and a faint patina of age told the remarkable story of its voyage.

The ghost ship began its journey just over 12 months ago in violent circumstances. It was snapped from its coastal Hokkaido mooring in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, earthquake that struck deep in the ocean off the Pacific coast of Tohoku.

It was the most powerful known earthquake to hit Japan and was followed by a devastating tsunami that flooded the coastline and estuarine areas before retreating out to sea, dragging millions of tonnes of debris in its wake. As recently as 10 days ago the devastation was still visible when Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the affected areas as part of his recent swing through Asia.

He was visibly moved by witnessing the savagery of the raw power that razed sections of the Japanese coastline.

According to Patrick Cummins, a Canadian research scientist specializing in ocean currents, that mountain of post-tsunami trash is slowly making its way across the Pacific.

He says it's bound to make the drifting Japanese vessel pale into insignificance by the time it's done.

Put simply, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

"It is slow, it is steady, but all the debris that remains afloat from that cataclysmic event is slowly making its way to the Pacific Northwest," Cummins told the Toronto Sun. "Some oceanographers estimate the debris field is 3,700 kilometers long and 1,800 kilometers wide, but we have no concrete figures because of the sheer spread.

"We were able to track it initially by satellite images, but then lost contact after a month or so. There is a confluence of currents that stretch right across the Pacific and that has separated the original single mass of debris into many.

"Over time heavier items have sunk. Plastic and lumber and an incredible range of detritus make up the material that is pushed by current and winds along ancient routes to a shoreline that stretches from Alaska to the Baha peninsula."

Cummins works within the Ocean Sciences division at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, B.C. His specialty is ocean flow in the Pacific.

He sees no reason why the arrival of that single fishing vessel won't be followed by a massive amount of debris.

The Japanese government has estimated that debris from the coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima alone reached 5 million tonnes. Of that, it says, 70% would have sunk quickly onto the coastal seabed.

That leaves the other 30%, or 1.5 million tonnes, adrift and slowly moving across the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

What does it consist of? More than 200,000 buildings were washed out by the enormous waves that followed the 9.0 quake. There were reports of cars, tractor-trailers, capsized ships and whole houses in open waters.

Even fully intact light aircraft were spotted at sea in the days and weeks after the tsunami struck.

The larger items quickly went to the bottom of the sea. Smaller fields of floating debris containing everything from plastic bottles and building lumber to shoes and assorted household goods kept floating - and travelling at a sedate 6 kph.

Near Midway Atoll in the deep Pacific, a Russian ship spotted an intact 6-metre Japanese boat from Fukushima last fall, along with debris such as a television sets and other household appliances, the University of Hawaii confirmed in January.

Ocean researchers based in Hawaii are monitoring that debris, which they earlier predicted would not reach Canadian shores until early next year.

The arrival of the fishing trawler has now meant scientists like Patrick Cummins have to hit the reset button on their estimations of the debris' progress.

"The ship travelled so far and fast because so much of its structure is above the water. It is high sided and pushed as much by wind as the current.

"Floating debris is slower - but that doesn't mean it won't arrive. Models show a two to two and a half year journey over the sea from Japan. That is still very much in our range of estimates.

"Still, that ship should serve as a warning; we just don't know what is coming in behind it."


Videos

Photos