When Gui Ribeiro first noticed that Nike sneakers kept washing up on Flores Island in the Azores in 2018, he had no idea that it was the start of a strange phenomenon. That’s because similar shoes would soon start turning up halfway across the globe. But, a year after the first piece of footwear was found, a theory to explain the mystery was put forward.
The Azores are a group of nine volcanic islands in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean. An autonomous region of Portugal, they lie just over 1,000 miles to the west of the Portuguese capital Lisbon. And with nearly 1,200 miles between the archipelago and Newfoundland in Canada, it’s fair to say that the Azores are pretty secluded.
For its part, life on the Azores is pretty simple. The main industries on the islands include livestock, fishing, dairy farming and agriculture. So it’s safe to say that the archipelago is a pretty sleepy place in general. However, it was here in September 2018 that a strange phenomenon was first noticed.
The strange occurrences in question were first noticed on Flores Island by Gui Ribeiro. And it all began when he found a number of unexpected items coming to shore from the ocean. At first, the washed-up articles came in small enough quantities as to not raise suspicions too much. But then came the deluge.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of the items kept washing up on the shore of Flores Island. Indeed, it seemed unlikely that they had been lost by individuals and carried to the Azores on the ebb and flow of the tide. Rather, it appeared that something much bigger was to blame – but there was no clear explanation for the phenomenon at first.
The items that Ribeiro was noticing on the beaches of the Azores were shoes – and they kept on arriving in surprising quantities. They came in different styles, but the most noticeable variety were Nike sneakers. Amazingly, Ribeiro found 60 in the months following his first discoveries in September 2018.
While many of the washed-up shoes differed in appearance, lots of them had things in common too. There were great hordes of shoes from certain brands, many in the same style, and when it came to some of the sneakers, lots of them shared the same production date, according to their labels. What’s more, every single shoe seemed to be completely unworn.
At first, Ribeiro must have believed that the footwear phenomenon was confined to the Azores. However, as the news of his bizarre discoveries spread through the international beach-combing community, sneakers and other shoes began to wash up elsewhere. Among the new locations was Cornwall in England, where Tracey Williams had been on the lookout.
In an interview with the BBC in June 2019 Williams revealed that she had been made aware of the sneaker discoveries by an acquaintance. She explained, “A friend in Ireland asked me if I had found any.” Intrigued, Williams then began scouring the beaches of Cornwall straight away, revealing, “I went out the next day and found quite a few.”
Williams explained that beachcombers often share the details of their finds with others in the community. As such, the strange story of the sneakers found in the Azores had no doubt captured imaginations. She continued, “Beach cleaners or beachcombers tend to network, so if a certain item is washing up, we quickly find out about it and we’re then on the lookout.”
Before long, the washed-up trainers had spread far beyond the Azores and the U.K. That’s because the floating footwear was also found across beaches in Ireland, France, Orkney, the Channel Islands, the Bahamas and Bermuda. As such, many beachcombers were eager to get to the bottom of the footwear phenomenon.
Strangely enough, it’s not the first time that a bunch of washed up shoes have raised suspicions. That’s because since August 2007 a series of shoes have washed up on the shores of the Salish Sea coastlines in Washington, U.S., and British Columbia in Canada. However, in many of these instances, the shoes also contained human feet.
Meanwhile, the Salish Sea shoes – and their gruesome contents – sparked a number of theories regarding their origin. One explanation suggested that the feet had come from people who had lost their lives in an airplane crash or boating accident. Foul play was also put forward as a theory, with the severed body parts perhaps being the handiwork of some depraved serial killer. Some people also believed that the feet could have belonged to victims of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
However, Barb McLintock, who works at the coroner’s office in British Columbia, confirmed the severed feet had a much more mundane explanation. That’s because she and her colleagues had concluded that the body parts had likely separated as a result of natural decomposition, a process which is sped up underwater.
The coroner’s office where McLintock worked concluded that the identifiable feet belonged to people who had died accidentally or committed suicide. And as their bodies decomposed, the buoyancy of their sneakers likely then allowed their feet to float to shore.
But unlike the shoes found on the Salish Sea, those that started to wash up on various coastlines in 2018 were empty. In fact, they had seemingly never been worn at all. So it seemed impossible that their origin would be the same as those ones that sporadically washed up in British Columbia and Washington.
So in many ways, these sneakers had more in common with the other random items that have washed up in quantity in various parts of the word. For instance, Kodiak, Alaska, saw an influx of fly swatters washing up along its shore. Strangely, the insect-beating gadgets were all sports-themed, bearing the logos of a number of collegiate and professional teams.
In a similar occurrence, which was first documented in 1992, rubber ducks began showing up in locations as widespread as Australia, South America, Scotland, Alaska and Newfoundland. And over 20 years later, the cute critter-shaped toys can apparently still be found across various coastlines.
While many of us are now aware of the dangers ocean pollutants pose to marine life, the rubber ducks have had some positive implications. In particular, they have helped scientists understand more about ocean currents, particularly those that form the North Pacific Gyre. They also learned about the so-called “great Pacific garbage patch,” which lies at its center.
Meanwhile, studying ocean currents helped experts deduce the most likely theory regarding the washed up shoes that began appearing in 2018. The locations in which the footwear had been found suggested that they were being carried by a trio of currents which combined formed a kind of loop.
The currents at play in the case of the shoes were thought to include the Canary Current, North Equatorial Current and the Gulf Stream. All of these operate in the North Atlantic near to the various coastlines where the shoes had appeared. With that in mind, it was likely that there were many more items of footwear circling the sea on the trio of currents.
According to the prominent oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, powerful currents seem to be carrying the sneakers across the ocean. But it’s actually their shape that determine where they’ll come ashore. So it’s unlikely that someone would be lucky enough to come across a free pair of Nikes in the same spot.
For his part, Dr. Ebbesmeyer elaborated on his theory in an interview with the BBC in June 2019. He said, “The left and the right sneakers float with different orientation to the wind. So when the wind blows on them they will go to different places. So on some beaches you tend to get the left sneakers and on others you get the right.”
So it seemed likely that the Nike sneakers and other footwear were being carried on ocean currents and distributed by the wind. But that didn’t explain where they had come from in the first place. Meanwhile, those in the beachcombing community had their own theories regarding the source of the shoes.
Back in the Azores islands, Ribeiro was confident he knew where the footwear had come from. He told the BBC, “Through the research I have done everything indicates they may have been from some of the 70 to 76 containers that fell overboard from the Maersk Shanghai.” And his theory seemed plausible.
The Maersk Shanghai is a 1,063-foot cargo ship with the capacity to carry over 10,000 containers. But in March 2018 it was caught up in a storm off the coast of North Carolina. And while at the mercy of choppy seas and powerful winds, it lost some of the goods is was carrying when they fell overboard.
Following the incident, aircrafts were apparently used to locate nine of the fallen containers. According to the maritime trade press, seven others had allegedly been lost after becoming submerged. However, the U.S. Coast Guard later reported that 70 containers had in fact gone missing following the storms.
But, with that said, it’s still not clear if all the washed-up footwear came from the Maersk Shanghai. Zodiac Maritime, the company that owns and operates the cargo vessel, declined to comment when approached on the matter by the BBC. Likewise, Nike also did not respond to the claims. But other footwear firms were more forthcoming.
Meanwhile, samples from the brands Great Wolf Lodge and Triangle had also been found washed up alongside the Nike sneakers on various beaches. And spokespeople from both those footwear companies confirmed that these had likely originated from the Maersk Shanghai. As a result, it seemed plausible that the Nike shoes probably came from the cargo vessel as well.
With that in mind, Ribeiro wasn’t alone in his belief that the washed-up shoes fell from the Maersk Shanghai. According to the BBC, fellow beachcomber Liam McNamara of County Clare, Ireland, had retrieved “well over 100” on his clean-ups, the majority of which had been Nike sneakers. And he thought that the footwear had “most definitely” come from the ship.
Explaining his conviction in the theory, McNamara told the BBC, “They’ve been turning up all over the place.” And the beachcomber explained he’d been persuaded by the fact other footwear firms has seemingly been linked to the Maersk Shanghai’s lost cargo. He said, “One company has admitted to losing stock from that shipment and another admitted losing stock at sea.”
Elsewhere, there have been calls for companies to be more transparent about what is lost at sea. Indeed, such spillages can have a huge impact on the ocean and its inhabitants. So it seems unlikely that many brands would be willing to admit to such occurrences.
Lauren Eyles is a marine conservationist with the National Marine project in the U.K. And she explained the issues that lost cargo can cause to the BBC. She said, “Whatever it is – if it is sinking to the bottom or washing up on beaches – it’s going to have a detrimental impact to the marine wildlife.”
While estimates do differ, it’s believed that ten million tons of plastic winds up in our oceans annually. And lost cargo, including footwear, can contribute to this figure. Eyles said, “The shoes will be breaking down to microplastics over years, which will have huge impacts on the amazing wildlife we have both in the U.K. and worldwide.”
However, despite the clear problems that lost cargo could pose to the health of our oceans, Eyles refrained from speculating on how big the issue was. She explained, “I don’t think there’s enough data on it to draw proper conclusions.” And while the World Shipping Council estimates that just 1,000 containers are lost to the seas each year, Dr. Ebbesmeyer believes that figure is a vast underestimation.
Dr. Ebbesmeyer told the BBC, “It’s a number the industry likes to dispute… I think it’s in the thousands of containers annually. The question really is: what’s in them?” He added, “A container can hold about 10,000 sneakers. So if you say 70 containers multiplied by 10,000, that gives you an upper limit [of 700,000 sneakers] that could be out there.”
According to Dr. Ebbesmeyer, shipping companies are only required to report losses if they contain harmful substances, which exacerbates the problem. However, he was hopeful that the shipping trade was starting to improve its procedures given the public’s awareness of ocean pollution. This means items that regularly wash up on shore are likely to be more scrutinized.
In his interview with the BBC, Dr. Ebbesmeyer explained, “It takes something like 30, 40, 50 years for the ocean to get rid of this stuff. I think companies that have spills think we will just forget about it – but it just keeps washing up. So how do we hold companies responsible? Right now there is no accountability.”
Back in Cornwall, U.K. beachcomber Tracey Williams was all too aware that solving the oceans’ pollution problems will be no easy task. She told the BBC, “Nobody wants their goods spread across beaches and polluting the ocean. But I think it would be good if companies could be more open about cargo spills – if they could put their hands up and say, ‘Yes, there has been an incident.’”
Over in Ireland, Liam McNamara also agreed that accountability was key when addressing the issue. He added, “These things are going to happen, but there doesn’t seem to be any responsibility when they do. The bottom line has to go back to the shipping companies; they’re responsible for their cargo.”