Troy Nicolini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's… (Bryant Anderson / Associated…)
The barnacle-covered boat with Japanese lettering spent 758 days at sea before it drifted onto a Northern California beach.
Nearly three weeks after the 20-foot boat washed ashore in Crescent City, about 20 miles south of the Oregon border, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined it was from the 2011 tsunami, the first confirmed debris to reach California.
Though official word didn't come until Thursday, a Humboldt State University professor used Facebook to connect the dots shortly after beachgoers discovered the boat April 7. Lori Dengler, who helped examine the craft, recognized the lettering after some of the barnacles were scraped away, the Del Norte Triplicate reported. The characters included "Takata High School" — a school in Rikuzentakata, a fishing town ravaged by the magnitude 9 quake and subsequent tsunami.
Dengler posted photos of the boat on the city's Facebook page, the newspaper reported. Soon after, a teacher confirmed that it belonged to the school.
Though nearly 1,700 pieces of debris have been reported to NOAA, the boat is only the 27th item found that has definitively been traced back to Japan, said NOAA spokeswoman Keeley Belva. Other items include giant docks that washed ashore in Washington and central Oregon, and a Harley Davidson found in a container that reached British Columbia.
But the boat isn't the first item recovered from Rikuzentakata. A year ago, a soccer ball marked in Japanese was discovered on a remote Alaskan island and eventually traced to a 16-year-old Rikuzentakata boy who recognized it as his. The teenager said his family lost everything in the tsunami, which he escaped by running to higher ground with his dog.
The Japanese government guesses the earthquake and tsunami — which killed thousands and devastated the northern part of the country — swept somewhere around 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, NOAA said. Although 70% of that was thought to have sunk quickly, an estimated 1.5 tons remained.
But given the amount of time that has passed since the tsunami, NOAA said it was unclear how much of that debris is still floating — or where it will show up.
"We think that it will probably trickle through as things go on," Belva said. "It's hard to say when anything will show up exactly — it depends on what it is, if something has broken down, weather patterns and currents. It really is challenging [to predict]."
It's also hard to say what debris is from the tsunami and what isn't, Belva said. Officials look for possible identifiers — such as lettering or boat registration numbers — and work with the Japanese government to try and pinpoint where the items originated.
The process takes digging, Belva said.
There are talks of returning the boat to Japan, but nothing has been decided yet, Belva said.
A Rikuzentakata spokeswoman told the Times-Standard in Eureka that the city was giddy to hear the boat had been found.
"Just to know it made it, just to know it made it across the Pacific, that's just one of these things in life that no one is prepared for — but in the best possible way," Amya Miller said. "That something made it across the ocean is beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful."