In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake occurred off the east coast of Japan and triggered a powerful tsunami. The immediate aftermath of the event left behind widespread destruction and devastation, but some good did come of the tsunami years later; it involves a survey marker, an across-the-ocean journey, and a creation that could help spark more interest in surveying as a career the world over.

Little Orca’s 5,000 Mile Odyssey

It all happened one summer night in 2012 as John Hohol, president of the International Federation of Surveyors (FIG) educational foundation and head of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) delegation to FIG, was browsing the Internet searching for surveying-related items. He came across a video interview of a charter boat captain from Orcas Island, a part of the San Juan Islands in Washington state. The captain, Tom Averna, was explaining that he had found a plastic object floating alongside his dock and wasn’t exactly sure where it came from.

It didn’t take long for Hohol to recognize the object. He has worked with Ripro Corporation, the maker of the survey marker, since the early ’80s, so he made it a point to contact Kengo Okada, the CEO of the Okayama, Japan-based company. He told Okada about the recently discovered marker.

“It was a very unique kind of marker and Ripro has been making these 100-percent recycled markers for quite a number of years,” Hohol says. “It’s definitely, so to speak, foreign to anything in the U.S., so it was easy for me to recognize.”

Okada didn’t hesitate to start trying to figure out where in Japan the survey marker came from, where it was originally installed. He says Ripro produces 3 million number plates for survey markers annually, so researching the marker sales list for it was no easy feat.

“Number 52 was a lucky number. I realized I could focus on two surveyor customers,” Okada says. In August 2012 he called Izumi Kaitani, one of the two customers linked to the number 52 that the marker found in Washington was marked with. He explained the story to Kaitani who checked his map history for the survey markers he had installed. After finding where this particular boundary marker had been placed, he traveled to the site in Hidaka, a city in southern Saitama Prefecture, Japan, and found that it was missing. Kaitani let Okada know about the confirmed disappearance of the 30-by-30-by-400-millimeter #52-4557 survey marker and Okada visited the site for himself.

Okada reconnected with Hohol, sharing the news that the origin of the survey marker had been found and that it had been uprooted in the 2011 typhoon, then journeyed around 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Washington state.

“It had quite a voyage to actually get out into the ocean because it had to go down several canals and out into a bay before it actually reached the ocean and managed to cross it. … There are a lot of nooks and bodies of water to maneuver around. So it’s something that it ended up floating along his dock like that,” Hohol says.

Hohol contacted Averna and coordinated a trip in which he and Okada would visit the site in Orcas Island where the marker had been found. In July 2013, the three met up, visited the spot where the marker had been found and went on a whale watching tour hosted by Averna.

Survey Marker Book for Children

While on the whale watching tour in Washington, Averna’s son and Okada came up with the nickname “Orca” for the marker. Okada remembered that back in Japan, while carrying out a Power Point presentation on the story behind the lost survey marker, the surveyor customer who had initially staked the marker found it hard to understand. At the time, Okada’s son was two years old and he had taken him to the library to show him a children’s comic book, traditionally referred to as Manga in Japan. Thinking back to that on the boat with Averna and Hohol, Okada came up with the idea to make a children’s Manga book about the Orca marker as an easy way to explain the story to everyday people.

Upon his return to Japan, Okada started to write the story and had a friend illustrate the drawings. He got help from U.S. friends with the English translation process. In November 2014, he finished the book, titled “Little Orca’s 5,000 Mile Odyssey.” Now it is distributed by Japanese bookstores and the government library in Japan. It is also available on Amazon and directly from Ripro.

“It has been well received by people from all over the world,” Okada says. “Everyone agrees that this is an unbelievable and fun story.”

Hohol points out that surveying, worldwide, is an aging profession and that it is something he as an FIG representative spends a lot of time working to address. He says a lot of discussion has been made about going into high schools and getting adolescents to understand surveying so that some of them ultimately explore it as a career. In addition, he says a lot of talk has been focused on what age group or groups should be targeted. In his opinion, a children’s book is a great opportunity to reach younger audiences without being boring.

“Just like learning a foreign language, you can never be too young to start. In some cases, they’re looking at ways they can go into grade schools to show them the coolness of being a surveyor and the tools and so-called toys surveyors use. So it’s very important to be able to find ways to communicate that, especially to younger kids, to get them enthused as well.”

Taking Advantage of Newsworthy Events

The case of a survey marker journeying across the ocean, being found and traced to the initial source is a rare occurrence, Hohol says, and it is something that surveyors can really benefit from. He highlights the fact that even if a book isn’t written as a result, the news in and of itself can spread awareness to everyday people of all ages.

“It brings some really positive publicity to the surveying profession and surveyors. … Most people don’t have an appreciation of who and what a surveyor is. When they see say a fire truck, police car or ambulance going down the street, they don’t realize that because of what surveyors have done they can find addresses and use 911 services. So it’s important to publicize that.”

When members of the surveying community find themselves or their work a part of such a unique experience, Hohol encourages them to publicize it.

“It’s a really good human nature story and it’s a really good thing to publicize. It not only helps to publicize the fact that it’s unusual and unique, but also that it’s a means of being able to bring some additional visibility to surveying and surveyors.”

Okada agrees that making news of unusual surveying related occurrences is a great way to ultimately attract more people into the profession, but he says his book has the opportunity to do so much more than that.

“I hope this marker story helps in connecting the world. Normally a boundary marker divides land, people and countries. In this story, a boundary marker hopes to connect countries and people. Same with surveyors. They divide boundaries, but they can connect and help world peace.”

Never-Ending Story

As if the story that brought Okada, Hohol and Averna wasn’t exceptional enough, the same thing happened again this year. Dale Lee found a survey marker during one of his beachcombing walks in Cape Blanco State Park, near Port Orford, Ore. He found the Washington story while searching the Internet and sent Okada an email in May. After receiving the message, Okada asked Hohol to get in touch with Lee and learn more about what happened.

In June, Okada and Hohol met again, this time in Port Orford. Lee took them to the beach where he found the marker. After returning to Japan, Okada was able to trace the marker back to a forest gardner who it was sold to in November 2010. Okada visited the site in Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan, in July. A series of Kumamoto earthquakes in April were the reason it was uprooted. Now Okada is thinking about publishing another Manga.

“Who knows how many more are out there?” Hohol says. “It still seems not to be the end of the story.”