These days, when unusual marine debris washes up on Alaska shores, thoughts go to the millions of tons of trash dragged into the Pacific Ocean by the Japan tsunami that struck in 2011. But in the summer, cargo and cruise ships and fishing vessels often sail the open waters of the Bering Strait. In recent years, Strait traffic has only increased as the Northern Sea Route across Siberia's northern coast has started to bustle. Tsunami or not, though, things fall overboard and ships can sink. And in most of coastal Alaska, floating garbage is a fact of life ... sometimes an interesting fact.
Village Police Officer McCormick Tungiyan was enjoying the Fourth of July festivities in Gambell, on the remote island of St. Lawrence in the middle of the Bering Sea, when he got a call about a boat floating close to shore. It was the same boat that had been spotted three days earlier, but had been drifting northeast, farther out to sea. Tungiyan left the Fourth of July games and headed to the shoreline.
"Sure enough, it was there," he said. A red life boat was floating about a quarter mile from the beach.
A crew decided to head out and retrieve it. They used their hunting boats, skiffs that were able to pull up alongside the life boat and haul it back to shore, where they used a tractor to pull it up to the beach.
The life boat came from the 305-foot Russian ocean factory trawler Kapitan Bolsunovskiy, which on May 26 crashed into an iceberg about 345 miles south of Russia's Dezhnev Cape, northeast of St. Lawrence Island at the very eastern tip of Siberia. All 91 crew members were rescued before the hole in the ship's hull caused the ship to capsize and sink.
The red life boat resembles a tug boat with Russian writing "all over it," Tungiyan said. It has sliding doors and railing around the top side. About 8-10 people could fit inside the boat, which was equipped with survival gear. The inside was messy, the equipment scattered on the floor and tossed by the waves. The boat had several holes, but the two largest were one in the stern, above the propeller, and one on the side of the bow, a second Village Police Officer said. Yet it managed to stay afloat.
The boat still contained a good deal of emergency gear. The officers stashed three or four life vests, red and covered with Russian writing, back at the station. The vests still worked -- one of the officers tried them out. There were also 20 to 30 gallons of emergency water, plus oars, ibuprofen, and unidentified Russian pills. All that was left at the boat, and as far as the second Village Police Officer knew, were still there, "unless people took them."
The community isn't sure what it'll do with the boat. Debris is constantly washing up on the shore of St. Lawrence Island, Tungiyan said. They get "all kinds of stuff" -- thousands of bottles wash up every year alone. People have found Japanese floats from the tsunami, but "nothing like this," he said.
A few years prior, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation brought a crew in to clean up the trash-riddled shores. Huge piles of trash bags were filled with debris all over the island, most of it having washed up from the sea. How much trash was there? "All I can say is, a lot." Tungiyan laughed.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com