Washed up on an Irish beach, 5,700km from home

It wasn’t exactly a message in a bottle, but Keith McGreal knew he’d made an unusual find

Keith McGreal was walking along Mulrany Beach, in Co Mayo, on Sunday when he spotted a blue plastic barrel that had washed ashore like a message in a bottle. Instead of a tightly wrapped letter inside, a clue to the barrel's origins was found on the stickers plastered to its dirty sides: "City of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina." The bin had wandered 5,700km from home. "The first reaction was, 'Wow,'" McGreal says. "I said, 'This is not from Ireland.'"

The 44-year-old, a safety and environmental officer, had been spending time with his family that afternoon when he and his children spotted a blue object in the distance and decided to race towards it. When they reached it, McGreal noticed the barrel had writing in English and Spanish, signalling it probably wasn’t local. “It was covered in goose barnacles as well,” he says. “I explained to the kids that if something is in the ocean a while like that, those shells have to grow on the outside of it. It was obviously in the water for a long time, making its way across the sea.

“It reminded me straight away of maybe like a message-in-a-bottle-type scenario, where you know who the sender is and you can maybe return a message back to them.”

So that night he wrote to the city of Myrtle Beach, alerting them to the location of their wayward tub. "Amazing to think it travelled all the way across the Atlantic," McGreal wrote in an email, which was shared online this week by Mark Kruea, a public information officer for Myrtle Beach.


“I looked at the pictures very carefully to see if it looked like our trash can,” Kruea says. “And then I sent the photos to our parks people, who take care of those on the beach, and they quickly confirmed that, yes, that’s our trash can.”

Kruea surmises that either wind during a storm or "human intervention" led to the barrel ending up in the ocean off South Carolina. From there, Chris Paternostro, an oceanographer at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimates, the bin got picked up by the Gulf Stream, which carried it up the east coast of North America and then across to the west coast of Ireland. "That's in the top 10 things on the oddities list that I've been keeping these last two-plus decades," Kruea says.

A post sharing McGreal's discovery on the Myrtle Beach City Government Facebook page on Monday elicited responses from both sides of the Atlantic, including one from Karen Golding Vaughan, a Myrtle Beach resident, who commented regretfully, "I just got back from Mayo 3 weeks ago, if I had known, I'd have hitched a ride!"

This is not the first time foreign marine debris has made waves. In 1990, 61,280 Nike trainers spilled off a freighter during a storm and landed in the Pacific Ocean, eventually washing up as late as 2019 in Europe, Bermuda, the Bahamas and elsewhere. In 1992, a cargo ship inadvertently dumped 28,000 rubber ducks into the Pacific – ducks that eventually made their way all the way to Maine, in the US. For more than three decades, residents of a coastal community in France were baffled by the regular appearance of Garfield phones on their shores until their source, a lost shipping container, was finally identified in 2019.

Paternostro says such events can sometimes turn into oceanographic experiments, because scientists know when these objects fell into the water and where they went, so they can use them to study currents and tides. But one lowly Myrtle Beach bin might not be able to contribute to the study of oceanography in the same way. “One trash can with an unknown time in the water and only a known origin is a little bit harder to give us a physical oceanography understanding,” he says.

Nancy Wallace, director of the marine-debris programme at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the bin barely scratched the surface of notable debris she's come across, which includes discarded furniture, mannequins and lost toothbrushes. "You find the most bizarre things in the ocean," she says.

And while Wallace points out that the barrel is a good example of how debris that winds up in the ocean can have far-reaching impact, McGreal recycled the bin by cleaning it up and leaving it for people to use on Mulrany Beach. "They're using it for its intended purpose in Ireland," Kruea says. "Which is pretty cool." – This article originally appeared in The New York Times