While roaming the beach on Alaska’s barren, largely uninhabited Middleton Island, radar station technician David Baxter noticed a soccer ball floating off the shore. But it wasn’t until he fished it out that Baxter realized how far the ball had traveled: some 3,000 miles, from its home in Japan, where a disastrous tsunami killed 19,000 people and poured the belongings of thousands of others into the ocean more than a year ago.
According to the Associated Press, Baxter’s Japanese wife, Yumi, was able to make out a name and translate a message inscribed on its surface. And soon enough, Yumi was on the phone with 16-year-old Misaki Murakami from the wave-ravaged Japanese town of Rikuzentakata, the International Business Times reports. “It was a big surprise. I’ve never imagined that my ball has reached Alaska,” Murakami told the Japanese broadcaster NHK Media. “I’ve lost everything in the tsunami so I’m delighted.”
The ball had been a going-away gift to Murakami when he transferred elementary schools in 2005. The Baxters plan to travel to Japan next month and return the soccer ball in person. They may be returning another treasure as well: a few weeks after finding the soccer ball, Baxter came across a volleyball with a similar inscription, belonging to 19-year-old Shiori Sato from Japan’s Iwate area.
Over the past year cleanup crews in the Pacific Northwest have been picking up plenty of debris washed ashore from the tsunami, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the soccer ball is the first piece that can be returned to its owner. Crews also found a fishing boat floating near Alaska, 4,500 miles away from its home in the port of Hokkaido, Japan. The NOAA identified the owner of the 170-foot Ryou-Un Maru, but the vessel had been discarded prior to the tsunami. Deemed a navigational hazard and too costly to return, the U.S. Coast Guard sent the boat to a watery grave April 5.
Researchers expect findings to continue through 2014 as debris travels across the Pacific ocean towards the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon.