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Tidal Treasures

March 15th, 2013 | Hannah Heimbuch Print this article   Email this article  

For Pacific beachcombers, the sea has brought sobering treasures of late.

Monday marks the two-year anniversary of the tsunami that raked across coastal Japan, pulling apart the homes, businesses and lives of seaside residents. Vast amounts of debris - 25 million tons - were dragged seaward, arriving on Alaskan, mainland U.S. and Canadian shores via ocean currents and Pacific winds.

Less than a year after the devastation that claimed 20,000 lives, Canadian filmmaker and photography director John Choi's imagination started to churn. He knew the sea would deliver the mementos of the tragedy, and he wondered what would become of them.

"I heard about the tsunami debris floating," Choi said, "and I really thought how incredible it would be if our government started to proactively collect and organize and article the items, and try to find the original owners."

He partnered with filmmaker Nicolina Lanni, and together they've been working on their documentary film, Lost and Found, slated to come out next year at this time.

Over the course of their work, they've collaborated with expert beachcombers, oceanographers, artists and many others who have discovered and tracked debris. That includes people like David Baxter of Middleton Island in Alaska, John Anderson of Forks, Washington, and oceanographer and artist Marcus Erickson.

Choi and Lanni have documented these varied enthusiasts as they've discovered and analyzed debris, always wondering the sometimes-unanswerable questions of a collector.

Who owned this? Who was this important to? Where are they now?

"All of these people, who've found pieces of debris, have changed," Choi said, "by this sort of longing to know the story behind the ball."

Choi is referring to a particular piece, an athletic ball covered in scrawled signatures. The filmmakers feature items like this in the documentary, along with the people who find and treasure them.

But then they take it one step further. And that is to reunite the lost item with its owner.

Alaskan Baxter and his wife, who live and work on the radar farm on Middleton Island, discovered a yellow buoy with Japanese characters on it. The buoy was the sign for a woman's restaurant in the Miyagi prefecture, a region hit hard by the tsunami. It had her deceased husband's name and the name of their family restaurant on it. The Baxters were able to return it to her, and hope to travel to Japan to meet her this summer.

The woman has since reopened her restaurant as she and others seek to move on from tragedy.

Choi and Lanni hope to help make more of these stories come about, as they seek to know the people affected and fascinated by the ocean's turbulence and mystery.

"We want to bring these people to Japan so that they can return these items to their rightful owners," Choi said.

A documentary funding campaign aims to fly 15 people overseas to hand deliver found items to their rightful owners.

"There are some fascinating reunion stories emerging from this project featuring remarkable people on both sides of the Pacific," said Nick Bannard, who is helping to promote the film. "There are also many different science/environmental angles that have come out of the filmmakers' work, from the threat of invasive species to small fishing communities in the pacific Northwest, to the long term effects ocean debris is creating on the environment, fish populations and beaches.?

The film focuses on these lost objects, Choi said, but the real story is about the people who lost them, and the people who seek to return them. His desire to tell that story is rooted in his own experience with disaster, and in the way that the world watches these disasters in the information era.

"We're in a time and age where something like a disaster is so graphically shown to the rest of the world," Choi said. "(Especially) in a country like Japan, which is on the cusp of all visual technology. When I saw that footage, I was completely affected emotionally, beyond the awestruckness of nature. It was the lives that really touched me."

Choi lived in Brooklyn during the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, a disaster he experienced first-hand. This effort to document the effect of Japan's disaster and its aftermath has allowed him to experience and process disaster in a different way, he said.

"That's what really spurred it for us," Choi said. "Just to try to find the human emotions in some mass tragedy that reaches other people. People that don't speak Japanese, that are not Japanese, that are totally different in culture and color."

Choi and Lanni will begin a three-week coastal trip from Alaska to Oregon in May, and travel to Japan over the summer. They plan to release their film for the third anniversary of the tsunami, in March 2014.

For more information on Lost and Found, visit The team will be fundraising until April on the funding site

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at


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