This time of year is often a bit deflating. Winter has barely begun and the next couple of months promise only darkness and cold. Yet when I was growing up on the shores of the Pacific, this time of year was rivaled only by Christmas in terms of sheer excitement. The holidays might be over, but it was mere weeks until glass ball season.
The North Pacific Current runs from the open ocean east of Japan to the open ocean west of California and forms the northern portion of the North Pacific Gyre. At its eastern terminus, the warm Kuroshio current from the south collides with the arctic Oyashio Current to feed the North Pacific Current. This brings all sorts of unusual items from the coast of Japan into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of this debris ends floating around in the Pacific or washes up on the shores of Hawaii, but given the right conditions, some would make it to North America.
Soon after the Vellela showed up, debris would start to wash ashore that were covered with pelagic barnacles and Japanese writing. The former were a sign that debris had been at sea for a long time. The latter was confirmation that conditions were right for finding the delicate fishing floats. And find them we did, sometimes by the dozen, in all shapes and sizes. Each one unique.
Norwegian fishermen were the first to use glass floats to replace wood and cork in the 1840s, and the practice caught on in Japan by 1910. The floats were originally blown, often from recycled glass (most of the balls were green because the glass came from old sake bottles). Millions of these floats were produced by hand in cottage-industries for Japan's large deep-sea fishing fleet. Together, thousands of tiny glass spheres would support drift-nets, some of which stretched for tens of kilometers.
Later-model floats were cast in wooden molds to make them more uniform in size. Eventually, it was cheaper to make floats out of plastic and aluminum, so glass ball numbers declined in the Pacific. There was a brief resurgence of glass floats following the 1979 energy crises (which is why I remember them from my childhood), but they are now all but extinct in the wild. It is rare indeed to find one freshly washed up on the beach these days.
Now, instead of finding shiny glass orbs scattered along the beach in late winter, beachcombers are greeted by a tide-line of plastic refuse. I still enjoy beach-combing, but it seems my chances of finding a glass ball are much higher on eBay.