Sunday, 19 May 2024

That Mystery Orb on a Japanese Beach? It Was Just a Buoy. (Sorry.)

Not every unidentified spherical object in sight is a spying device, people.

Case in point: A giant metal ball that washed up on a Japanese beach, drawing suspicion from the authorities and wonder from the public this week.

After the rusty yellowish sphere, about the size of a wrecking ball, drifted ashore in Hamamatsu, Japan, officials in helmets and hazmat suits cordoned off the area, even planting a traffic cone on the sand to ward people off. That led to speculation that it might be an old seaborne mine or some sort of instrument of espionage.

A mysterious metal ball spotted on a beach in Hamamatsu City this week prompted local police to scramble the bomb squad. A careful examination revealed it is not a threat — but shed no light on what it actually is.

But after X-raying it, the police confirmed that it was not explosive. It was just a large, spherical piece of scrap metal — a reminder that the oceans, like the skies, are full of mystery and trash.

“The ball is going to be scrapped eventually,” Hiroyuki Yagi, an official at Shizuoka Prefecture’s River and Coastal Management Bureau, said by telephone on Friday, adding that the authorities had assigned a local company to hold on to it for now.

More on Japan

By then, it was far too late to stop the online mill of rumors (and jokes). For days, television footage of helmeted officials peering and prodding at the sphere had led to comments about a possible unidentified floating object, or perhaps an egg produced by something large, lurking far below.

One Japanese public figure of sorts, a cheeky mascot named Chiitan, went so far as to essentially say, “C’est moi.”

“An iron ball about 1.5 meters in size, found in Shizuoka,” the mascot’s handlers wrote on Twitter. “It could be me.”

Mostly, though, the commentary reflected geopolitical tensions. Last weekend, a North Korean missile landed in waters west of Japan, and earlier this month a Chinese spy balloon over the United States set off a diplomatic crisis and a spate of flying-object sightings. The end result, after the footage from the beach appeared online, was a lot of remarks about spy buoys.

It was, of course, a nonspying buoy, experts said.

“It’s just a normal buoy,” Uwe Send, an oceanographer with the University of San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said in an interview.

Dr. Send said such buoys were widely available for purchase online and could be seen on Pinterest. Oceanographers use different types of buoys for many kinds of research and normally paint them in bright colors, with a name or phone number, often attaching a light or beacon to help keep track of the expensive equipment attached to them.

Buoys resembling the one found in Japan are typically made of steel and are often used for mooring ships in harbors or at sea. They usually float on the surface, unlike other buoys that can withstand the pressures of deeper water.

Dr. Send said the response to the Hamamatsu buoy struck him as a little odd, given the common use of such devices in ocean research and maritime shipping.

“Maybe everybody is paranoid because of balloons,” he said.

Research buoys have washed up in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Miami in recent years, Dr. Send said. In those cases, painted phone numbers quickly directed the authorities back to researchers.

But the authorities in Hamamatsu, a city west of Tokyo, could not determine where the specimen had come from or who owned it, because its exterior was too rusty and had no visible markings, said Mr. Yagi of the coastal management bureau.

“We rarely have objects on the beach, aside from driftwood,” he added.

The fact that it was not covered by shells or seaweed suggests that it probably hadn’t traveled very far, said Shigeru Fujieda, an expert in marine debris at Kagoshima University in southern Japan. He said his best guess was that the buoy had been designed to anchor a ship or some other heavy object.

It probably was not used for scientific purposes, since it was both unpainted and larger than the research buoys that typically wash ashore, Professor Fujieda added.

“Those buoys were slightly bigger than a basketball,” he said. “Not this big.”

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