GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — As a thunderstorm picked up along the Galveston beach at dusk, Tom Linton rushed along with his dog, kicking aside what looked like a coconut that had washed up. Little did he know the barnacle-encrusted object was actually a lost camera that had traveled 1,144 miles over nine months from the Caribbean island of Cayman Brac.
Now, that camera is helping the theories of a team of Texas A&M researchers who are studying the track seaweed travels and how that path could be linked to hurricanes.
"It's like a message in a bottle," said Capt. Robert Webster, one of the scientists involved in studying the massive amounts of sticky, grimy Sargassum seaweed that washes up on the Texas coast.
The researchers have been tracking the seaweed partly to help predict, with the help of NASA satellite images, large landings of the marine-bound grass on Texas beaches. By doing this, the scientists hope to also help unravel the mysteries behind why storms behave the way they do — fro, the track they take to their strength.
For years, people thought the seaweed, an annoyance for beachgoers but crucial for coastal health, was traveling a path far north and west of the Cayman Islands. But the camera traveled south, right past the islands — just as Webster and his crew of research assistants argue that Caribbean currents do under specific conditions in the east Atlantic over the Sargassum Sea.
It also took the camera nine months — nearly to the day — to reach Texas, validating their theory on the time it takes seaweed to travel that distance.
Nina Banks, a professional underwater photographer on the Caribbean island that's southwest of Cuba, lost the camera in December 2012. After Linton found it, he took it home, scrubbed it for a half-hour and found a latch on the protective waterproof encasement.
"I thought, 'good Lord. The genie just jumped out of the bottle," said Linton, a retired Texas A&M University marine life expert. The camera's memory card revealed underwater images of coral and marine life and pictures of people on a beach.
"All of this was white, white sand, blue water. Not Galveston," Linton said, laughing at the comparison between the brown sand and greenish water characteristic of Texas beaches.
But he was unable to view the license plates on the cars to figure out where the pictures had been taken. So, he contacted Galveston Police Det. Rick McCullor. Using police technology, McCullor narrowed in on a slideshow in the backdrop of a picture. Through that he was able to find Saskia Edwards, the program coordinator for a local Cayman Brac market. She recognized Banks in a picture, and the photographer confirmed she had lost the camera.
This excited Webster.
Before sophisticated tracking and modeling — perhaps going back to the massive hurricane in 1900 that decimated Galveston and remains the worst natural disaster in US history — seaweed landings may have been a hint to coastal residents that a large storm was on the way, Webster said.
"There is a link," he insists, explaining how he has mapped the storms and Sargassum landings of the past 150 years but is missing a piece of the puzzle.
Now, Webster hopes to travel the path the camera took in order to return it to Banks. Along the way, he'll take pictures of seaweed slicks and note the currents in real time.
Hopefully, he said, he can find someone in Cayman Brac who will continue tracking the Sargassum pads over the coming years, and together, they will be able to find the missing piece and further the understanding scientists have of why storms do what they do.
"The tracking technology is so advanced," Webster said of hurricane forecasting. "But having the understanding of why it does this and it does that — we don't know that."
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