Before landing on Boca Chica Beach north of the Rio Grande, this strange object traveled thousands of kilometers, crossed the equator, and spent decades on the ocean floor.
At the southern tip of Texas, just a few meters from the mouth of the Rio Grande in the Gulf of Mexico, there is an unusual object, about the size of a desktop computer. It’s muddy, with a rough exterior.
Similar objects have been found on the opposite side of the Gulf in Florida and a little further south.
“In 2018 rubber balls will appear on the Brazilian coast,” said Carlos Teixeira, researcher and lecturer at the University of Ceará in Brazil.
“At the beginning we didn’t know what kind of material it was,” he says. “A lot of people asked us about the source of – they called it ‘mysterious boxes’ – but we didn’t know the source.”
His team discovered that the objects contained postage stamps from French Indochina – what is now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. That was an important clue.
“This is old stuff because French Indochina no longer exists.”
The team found archive records, including a striking US newsreel video from 1944.
“Brazilian fishermen are finding good fishing opportunities off their coast that bring better yields than the Finny variant,” the spokesman announced. “The catch is raw rubber that the German war machine lost when the US Navy sank three blockade runners.”
Three ships full of rubber balls were sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic off the coast of Brazil.
“The question for you in Texas is how these rubber balls will arrive in the US – in Texas – in 2020 and 2021,” said Teixeira.
The Brazilian research team believes the shipwrecks have started to rust and may have been disturbed by people trying to recover cobalt. Whatever the cause, as soon as the rubber balls floated about 6,000 meters above sea level, some of them were carried north.
Chris Reddy, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, expressed doubts about the salvage theory, describing it as “a possibility” but also as a “non-trivial effort”.
In response to a follow-up e-mail, Teixeira wrote: “At first I also doubted the possibility of recovery, but we are talking about more than 30 million dollars in cobalt.” He said David Mearns, who first discovered the site and runs Blue Water Recoveries, convinced him of the possibility.
Otherwise, Reddy described the team’s research paper as “precise” and said it made “absolutely oceanographically sensible”.
“It is entirely possible that they stayed in the ocean current and went all the way to the top,” he said. “They hug on the Venezuelan coast, then shoot into the Caribbean current and all the way to Central America, and then get caught in the currents of the Gulf of Mexico.”
That’s the how. But why now?
“When you see (80 year old shipwreck cargo) out of nowhere, start asking him the question: Why?” said Reddy. “And one of the answers would be that the ship is starting to crumble.”
This is a common concern for marine researchers. Thousands of ships were sunk during World War II.
“This is a question of the integrity of ships that are on the ocean floor, most of which have oil.” All of these warships have all carried somewhere between 500,000 and a million gallons of oil. So there are a lot of ships that people worry about. “
The rubber balls are also not good for the environment. Carlos Teixeira said there was concern that shorebirds might eat them if they break up.
And, he said, there were more on the way.
“This year there is a new release of rubber balls,” he said.
The team has computer models of how long it takes to travel from Brazil to the US
“It takes about eight to nine months,” he said. “So there will probably be new rubber balls coming to the US next year.”
World War II ended 76 years ago, but the cleanup could stretch well into the future.