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88,000-mile journey? Plastic card makes landfall in Alaska after 33-year sea voyage

James Poulson / Daily Sitka Sentinel via AP

Beachcomber Emmitt Andersen, 12, holds up a plastic card set adrift by NOAA in the 1970s that he found in Sitka, Alaska.

A plastic card dropped into the ocean 33 years ago has been found on the coast of Alaska, after a potential 88,000-mile journey.

The drift card was one of thousands put into the Bering Sea by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as part of a project to find out where oil would go if there was a spill.

About the size of a postcard, it offered a reward of $1 for its return in three languages: English, Japanese and Russian.


It was found on a beach at Sealion Cove, near Sitka, Alaska, last month by 12-year-old middle school student and keen beachcomber Emmitt Anderson. "We never know what we're going to find ... I just like to find stuff. When I don't find stuff, I'm not very happy," Anderson told the Daily Sitka Sentinel newspaper.

'Amazingly good condition'
His father Steve contacted NOAA and was put in touch with oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who tracks flotsam as it rides the world's currents.

Ebbesmeyer told msnbc.com that Anderson's drift card had likely been caught in the Aleut gyre, circulating ocean currents that take three years to make an 8,000-mile orbit.

"The question is how many times did it go around? I think it's likely it went around once, it could have gone round 11 times. It's possible it went 88,000 miles. It could have short-circuited the gyre … we'll never quite know," he said.

Courtesy Curt Ebbesmeyer

This plastic card may have traveled 88,000 mile, according to oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer.

"Everything in the ocean, particularly plastic, can travel great, great distances," he added.

Ebbesmeyer said the drift card was in "amazingly good condition."

"After 33 years in the ocean, [it] is in quite readable condition," he said. "Plastic doesn't degrade very fast."

Much of the plastic that finds its way into the sea will travel the world for years to come.

"Half of all plastic cannot sink because of its specific gravity. It's as if it was in prison in Flatland [a fictional two-dimensional world]," Ebbesmeyer said.

Study: Plastic in 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' increases 100-fold

While Anderson's drift card did not make landing very far from where it was released, others have ended up in Europe.

"Across the North Pole, down past Greenland, down to almost New York City, over to the vicinity of London, then turn south to France. That's probably the longest certifiable drift," Ebbesmeyer said.

Even if the Sitka drift card traveled 88,000 miles that may not be the longest ever journey by a piece of plastic in the sea.

Dec. 29: NBC's Kerry Sanders reports on a huge mass of garbage floating in the Pacific Ocean that is killing marine life and growing larger each day.

An albatross found on Midway Island in the Pacific in 2004 was found to have 512 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

One piece was discovered to have come from a downed aircraft from World War II. It was likely caught in the 12,000-mile turtle gyre, which takes about six years to make its full circle.

Ebbesmeyer said that if that piece of plastic made 10 orbits in 60 years, that would mean it traveled 120,000 miles, equivalent to about five times round the Earth.

Plastic ducks, frogs
He also tracks some 28,800 plastic bath toys called Floatees – turtles, ducks, beavers and frogs – that were lost overboard from a container ship in the mid-Pacific in 1992. 

Hundreds drifted some 2,200 miles and beached -- like Emmett Anderson's drift card -- near Sitka, Alaska.

To date, a duck was seen in Maine in July 2003, while a green plastic frog was spotted in Scotland in August 2003.

Ebbesmeyer, who usually gets one or two reports a year about the floating toys, said some of them may be approaching an epic achievement: Circumnavigating the globe.

"It's possible they have gone something like in the order of round the world," he said.

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