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Like a message in a bottle, a yellow disk recently washed up on the shores of Long Beach in Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, leading Parks Canada staff to uncover a decades-old story that began near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

by Laura Judson, Parks Canada

This article is part of the March 2011 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

This fall, a visitor found a yellow plastic saucer-shaped disk on Long Beach and left it against a recycling bin. When Parks Canada janitor Jackie Aubertin found it, she was curious about the disk and took it back to the office to clean it up. As she scrubbed, a message was slowly revealed:


Jackie brought the strange find to ecosystem scientist John McIntosh, who followed the instructions on the disk and sent it back to Menlo Park, California, offering to forego the 50-cent reward in the interest of science. While we waited for a reply, the mystery of the yellow disk became a bit of a joke among the staff. Jackie was even presented with a thank-you letter, allegedly from U.S. President Obama, with two American quarters attached.

In December, the disk's real history came to light: a letter arrived from Laura Torresan, webmaster for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, expressing excitement about the find. The letter explained that the disk was actually part of a seabed drifter, a yellow disk with a weighted tail to minimize the influence of factors other than bottom currents. Our seabed drifter had been dropped off near the Golden Gate Bridge 40 years ago as part of a study on bottom currents. It took a combination of currents from 1970 until 2010 to get the disk (now minus its weighted tail) from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Clayoquot Sound area. It appears to be one of the last stragglers from a total of nearly 8,000 near-bottom drifters that were released over a year as part of a study of water circulation in the San Francisco Bay area. Staff at the USGS sent some baseball caps along with a kind letter thanking Parks Canada staff for stirring up memories of the "good ol' days."

Word of the yellow disk also spread to one of the original researchers, now-retired USGS emeritus scientist David Peterson. He was delighted by the find and sent along a report about the original study for which the disks were used to compile data. The discovery even landed on the front page of the Victoria Times-Colonist newspaper and was picked up by several other newspapers across Canada. 

Now that its story has been told, the yellow disk is sitting in a designated bin in a USGS archive, its long 40-year journey finally complete, thanks to the curiosity of Jackie and John. 

About the author: Laura Judson is a Public Relations and Communications Officer with the Coastal British Columbia Field Unit of Parks Canada.

A USGS plastic disc drifter found in Canada, and the people who found it.
Disk found by Parks Canada janitor Jackie Aubertin beside a recycling bin on Vancouver Island. When originally deployed near San Francisco, California, it had a red plastic stem with a brass weight near the end. The Parks Canada janitor who discovered the disk (left) holds a thank-you letter from the USGS, and a Parks Canada ecosystem scientist holds the 1970 report about the USGS study.
Map shows location of beaches in Canada.
David Peterson, who took part in the original study, notes that ocean currents reverse seasonally on the west coast, and speculates that the disk traveled to and fro for years before finally washing up on Long Beach.

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