Old seaside tradition providing vital new data

Fawn Hornbaker of Long Beach is seen here opening a mysterious bottle with a note inside, which she and her daughter found on the beach near their north Long Beach home the day after Christmas. CHRIS NIELSEN photo

LONG BEACH - When Fawn Hornbaker of Long Beach was strolling on the beach near Klipsan Beach with her daughter Vicki Nugent the day after Christmas, she wasn't looking for anything in particular. But as it turned out, she found a mysterious bottle with a note inside.

The bottle was carefully corked and the top was sealed with wax. All that was printed on the note inside was a tag number and that it was part of an oceanographic study, plus a request to return the note to a post office box in Coos Bay.

After several phone calls by the Chinook Observer, it was determined that the bottle was part of an ongoing oceanographic study out of Coos Bay which has spanned over seven years.

The bottle is just one of five sole survivors found so far - out of a total of 1,300 released Oct. 1, approximately 70 miles offshore of Coos Bay. Three other bottles were found on the Peninsula between Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, washing up on beaches near Seaview, Klipsan Beach and Ocean Park. One other bottle was found near Ocean City on Jan. 4.

South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is based in Charleston, Ore., a suburb of Coos Bay, is responsible for these "drift bottles."

According to the group's research program coordinator, Steve Rumrill, releasing the bottles is part of a study to track the drift of ocean waters over long periods of time, and subsequently demonstrate links throughout the Pacific Rim, including areas such as Coos Bay, Coquille Bay, Umpqua Bay as well as the Long Beach Peninsula.

"Through information from the drift bottles, we can tell more about how Dungeness crabs, shrimp, clams and other shellfish are trans-located through estuaries and ocean waters over generations," said Rumrill.

According to Rumrill, these marine species are commercially and recreationally vital to Oregon and Washington, so the bottle study is an important one. He said the bottles also provide other types of information, such as population numbers near shorelines and replenishment estimates.

Partnering with the South Slough group is the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It is a NOAA vessel, such as the McArthur, which has taken the bottles out to be released, primarily offshore of Coos Bay, every two years since 1996.

Another partner in the drift bottle study is Marshfield High School in Coos Bay. Last May, 26 sophomores, juniors and seniors in the school's oceanography class prepared the 1,300 bottles which were released in October.

"Participating in the project allows the students to make a real-world connection with oceanography," said class instructor George Tinker. "Also, we are helping with manpower for the study."

The last release, in early June 2000, wound up sending the bottles in a more southerly direction. With this release, and most all others since 1996, the bottles turned up in the Hawaiian Islands.

According to Rumrill, the different paths the bottles take are due to the Pacific Ocean's currents off the shore of Washington and Oregon, which change directions depending on the time of year. Usually what happens in the fall and winter, from October to April, the near-shore currents are northward. During the rest of the year, the current moves in a southerly direction, with April seen as the transitional month.

Even with this knowledge, South Slough scientists never know exactly where the drift bottles will turn up, which is why they were very interested in Hornbaker's bottle and the others found on the Peninsula in December and earlier this month.

"The number of bottles found is usually only about one out of a 1,000, so four being found on the Peninsula is pretty rare," said Rumrill. "What this tells us is that we are just one drift away from each other, Coos Bay from the Long beach Peninsula. Now we know these estuaries are linked by a conveyer belt of water."

According to Rumrill, it is a short time frame between the bottles' release in Coos Bay last October and their recovery on the Peninsula and further north in Ocean City. He said these five bottles must have just come up on the shoreline current.

"The others are probably headed out offshore from the Queen Charlotte Islands, which is north of Vancouver Island and those will diverge out into the Pacific Ocean," he said. "We are not sure where they will end up. They may end up south again next spring or summer and be found along the Washington, Oregon or California coasts in subsequent years."

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