The oceans are teaming with life and full of washed-up treasures. Whenever Suzie and I and our children walk along the seashore we always come home with driftwood, seashells and smooth rocks. 

What we were really picking-up from the beach is more correctly referred to as flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam is articles found floating on or slightly beneath the ocean’s surface. Jetsam is whatever is jettisoned into the water including cargo containers and their contents, plastic soda bottles, Styrofoam fishing net floats or rubber ducks. If it floats, jetsam then becomes flotsam. If it sinks to the ocean floor, it becomes lagan; where there are many ancient shipwrecks in their watery graves amongst Davy Jone’s locker. 

Throughout the ages humans have always been interested with flotsam. Perhaps one of the most sought after floating treasures was ambergris.

Ambergris is a waxy substance similar to cholesterol, produced in the lower intestinal tract of sperm whales. It forms around accumulated indigestible matter such as octopus remains, cuttle fish bones and squid beaks. When enough beaks, bones and amorphous matter accumulate a chemical reaction occurs and the irritating material forms a waxy blob. Sperm whale’s expel this waste, often weighing in excess of 485 pounds, into the ocean.

Expelled ambergris is dark at first but a reaction with salt water changes it to a grayish white and from waxy to pasty in texture. 

In this case, one animal’s trash is another’s treasure.

For centuries Channel, Patou and Guerlain used ambergris as a fixative to stabilize flower-based essences to make perfume. In 1908, Norwegian whalers found a blob of ambergris weighing 970 pounds and sold it for 23,000 English pounds — a fortune.

Sperm whales were hunted to near decimation from numbers over a million to 20,000. Today they are protected and most countries prohibit trading ambergris. 

The Venus flower basket is one of the world’s rarest and most prized bits of flotsam. It is occasionally found on the beaches of Cebu Island, Philippines, where it lives at depths of in excess of 16,404 feet in the Western Pacific Ocean.

It is a hollow cylindrical glass-like skeleton measuring 12 inches long made up of fragile lattice-work resembling an intricate scaffolding system. The bone-white lattice-work acts as a protective refuge and attracts tiny pairs of mating shrimp. As they grow so too does the Venus flower basket quickly entrapping the shrimp. Their offspring, brine, are able to swim through the lattice-work openings but the parents are trapped for life. 

Scientists from Lucent Technologies were intrigued with the elaborate lattice-work design on the Venus flower basket. They found it had major fundamental construction strategies applicable to laminated structures, fiber reinforced composites, fiber optics and diagonal reinforced square-grids cells. 

Driftwood, amazingly, can travel vast distances without deteriorating. Driftwood provides habitat for in excess of 100 species of invertebrates and 130 species of fish congregate around it. Plankton attracts small fish which in turn attracts predators like tuna and dorado. 

Sixteen-hundred years ago a transoceanic voyage brought a tree trunk from Peru to Polynesia carrying the exotic sweet potato. By 1300 AD sweet potatoes were being cultivated in New Zealand, China and Japan as an important staple food crop.

In 1737, Benjamin Franklin — inventor, scientists, businessman, and postmaster — used his ingenuity to speed-up the mail service from Western Europe to the American colonies by following messages in bottles as they traveled across the ocean. 

He used the messages in bottles to chart the movements of the Atlantic currents. He found faster routes for the ships to cross the Atlantic and his charts were so accurate that they are today essentially unchanged.

Over 100 million containers of cargo cross the oceans each year. In 1990 five containers carrying 80,000 Nike athletic shoes spilled into the North Pacific. Two hundred and forty nine days later they began washing up onto Vancouver Island and Washington beaches.

A large number were beached farther north and south depending upon whether they were right- or left-footed. The toe curve of the right shoes tacked northeast into the Alaska current passing the Queen Charlottes where many were washed-up. The left-footed Nikes tacked southeast in the California current passing Oregon where the tide brought many ashore. 

In 1992 a cargo boat carrying 28,000 rubber beavers, turtles, frogs and ducks, made in China destined for the U.S., encountered wild weather; they were tossed into the Pacific Ocean. Since then they have floated around the oceans and in 2003 a duck turned up in Maine while in 2004 a frog was beached in Scotland. 

These floating bathtub toys have helped climate and ocean scientists follow currents especially assisting with studying the effects of climate change on rising ocean temperatures.

Dr. Reese Halter is a public speaker and conservation biologist. His upcoming book is entitled “The Incomparable Honey Bee,” Rocky Mountain Books. He can be contacted through

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