To Tofino and beyond: Drift cards travel far and wide
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Deb Volturno
A group of students from Port Angeles' Lincoln High School get ready to release drift cards into the Strait of Juan de Fuca from a Coast Guard vessel earlier this year.

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PORT ANGELES — When a group of science students from Port Angeles' Lincoln High School cast 500 green wooden cards into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May, they had no idea they would travel farther from Port Angeles than ever before.

The 11th annual drift-card experiment is designed to track surface currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Strait of Georgia, inland waterways and along the Pacific coast.

This year, cards have reached Vargas Island, 225 miles northwest of Port Angeles on the western shore of Vancouver Island, “the most north ever reported,” and arrived early in Tofino, B.C., said Deb Volturno, science teacher at Lincoln High, whose class disperses the drift cards.

In May, the students stood on the cobbled shore of Ediz Hook and chucked 250 cards into the Strait.

Later that afternoon, they dropped another 250 drift cards into the middle of the Strait from a Coast Guard cutter.

The annual experiment is part of an independent science project, this year involving 15 students in grades 9-12, in which the times and locations of the card drops are chosen to closely repeat previous years' conditions.

“They learn to interpret this data with real-world applications like for oil spills,” Volturno told the Westerly News of Ucluelet, B.C., after drift cards were found in nearby Tofino.

“We're even finding out things about ocean currents that are new information.”

The cards have been known to travel across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island from where they cross the Strait again near Freshwater Bay, travel out to the Pacific Ocean around Cape Flattery, then drift down the coast, while others travel east toward Dungeness Spit and Whidbey Island, then circle around toward the west to the San Juan Islands, Volturno said.

In past years, the group used 300 cards, but the experiment grew to 500 cards for the 2013 study.

This year, the cards arrived in Tofino, about 134 miles as the crow flies from Port Angeles on the western shore of Vancouver Island, in June.

“We don't usually hear from the Tofino area until much later in the summer or even the fall,” Volturno said.

Local resident Mary Christmas found three of the 6-inch-by-4-inch wooden cards, according to the Westerly News.

“I wondered what they were, but they had written instructions asking you to report the number on them and the date and location where you found them,” Christmas told the newspaper.

Christmas called the phone number on the card to find out what it was all about.

“They were so excited when I called to find out how far the card had traveled, and it got me very excited, too,” Christmas is quoted as saying.

“I've been looking for more ever since, but those three were the only ones I found so far.”

The early arrival in Tofino demonstrates a change from past years, Volturno told the newspaper.

“We're seeing some very different weather patterns and currents this year from the past,” she said.

She said students “first became interested in the currents of the Salish Sea when a fisherman disappeared from the Elwha River and his body was found along the west coast of Vancouver Island.”

“At first, the data was only used at the school, but people are starting to get interested in it because we really have great data, and we've been collecting it for 10 years now,” she said.

U.S. oceanographer Curtis Ebbermeyer has expressed an interest in the data, and the Sooke Region Museum is expected to run an exhibit about the project.

Anyone who discovers a card is asked to report the number of the card, where it was found and the date it was discovered.

Each card carries information on where to send the data.

For more information on the drift-card project, phone Volturno at 360-565-1883 or email

Last modified: July 24. 2013 6:13PM
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