flotsametricsHow One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science

Authors: Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano
Publisher: Smithsonian Books/Harper Collins
ISBN 13:9780061558412

Reviewed by Orlay Johnson

If you would enjoy learning about the life and times of Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a UW graduate and Seattle oceanographer best known for tracking ocean currents using sneakers and bath toys lost, then sit back and enjoy. Flotsametrics, is co-written by Dr. Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, a local science writer.

It is a fun read, with plenty of oceanographic insights, some very personal experiences and a glimpse into the very “way out” thinking that allowed Ebbesmeyer to champion some bizarre ideas, like using Nike sneakers and bathtub toys lost off of freighters to study massive oceanic gyres.

The books has its ups and down, but I most enjoyed the parts directly related to Dr. Ebbesmeyer’s scientific studies – especially his initial graduate studies at the University of Washington with Cliff Barnes. As an new master’s student he discovered something he called “snarks” in Puget Sound’s Dabob Bay. Snarks are coherent slabs of water that move from the South Sound to the Strait of Juan De Fuca. They may not seem very important unless someone is dumping sewage into the Sound and expects it to disperse in a few hours. Fortunately, there are plenty of similar adventures in his wide -ranging life that are equally fascinating, from studies of massive oceanic currents tearing up oil rigs (and leaving them to float away like giant jellyfish), theories of how life evolved in floating pumice, and studies of the massive plastic inundation of on the world’s oceans.

The book includes well-crafted insights into Dr. Ebbesmeyer’s life in Seattle and what it is like to be a scientist at the turn of the 21st century. This includes stories about his family, parents and close colleagues, which may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still I think it is important to remember that scientists do not work in a vacuum – science occurs within the framework of family, friends and support institutions and the book well conveys this. It was his mother who originally pointed out the advantages of studying sneakers in the ocean, and his relationships with a variety of colleagues, including Akira Okubo and Jim Ingraham are wildly productive. Ebbesmeyer’s long association with beachcombers and beachcombing networks also is a model of how scientists can work together with the public in a literate society to advance our understanding of the world.

On the negative side, the book is uneven and some parts seem so personal they are almost painful. It is laudatory that Scigliano is equally credited as co-author, but the book still jumps around from science to family and back again much too sharply. Some of the science is very speculative, such as an entire section on a theory of how life evolved from pumice drifting on the ocean currents. The maps and illustrations challenge the reader – they are tiny, often difficult to read, and way too few and far between.

I was pleasantly surprised by the profuse and well-documented references for “further reading.” So often, biographical accounts lack documentation, and/or they are way too boring, but, like icing on the cake, this book has fascinating and useful appendices, a full glossary, and a far better index than most textbooks.

If you want just the science, check out Goggle or the Web of Science and look up Ebbesmeyer’s almost 100 peer-reviewed papers – he is an articulate and prolific scientist.

If you want to know about the person behind the science as well as some interesting and inspiring stores about what is like to be a modern day oceanographer, check out this biography. Good reading one way or the other.

Orlay Johnson works for the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is a member of the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME). This review originally appeared in Scuttlebutt, the newsletter for the Northwest Aquatic and Marine Educators (NAME).