To Valerie Sonnenthal and her two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Zero and Gracie, the object lodged in rocks between Stonewall and Squibnocket Beach at first appeared to be a giant tennis ball.
It was a late April morning, and Sonnenthal, who is a Times contributor, was on her regular beach walk with her dogs. She wasn’t so surprised to see unexpected something had appeared: “You see all sorts of things wash up.” But, she said this was “definitely by far the largest and brightest” drifter she had ever come across.
Meanwhile, on Cape Cod, Captain Mark Palembo was wondering about one of his lost soldiers: Buoy No. 310559.
Palembo is the owner of about 80 buoys as the head fisherman of Calico Lobster Co., based in Sandwich. He has fished offshore for the past 33 years, and sets up his lobster pots near the continental shelf, southeast of Nantucket.
Losing buoys is just part of the fishing trade. About 35 of Palembo’s disappear every year. He typically first checks to see if they have deflated and sunk between their abandoned post and the next closest one. If that approach fails, Palembo uses a steel-barbed grapple to rummage underwater and try to snag it. “It’s very, very, very rare that they come back,” said Palembo.
On a later beach walk in early May, Sonnenthal noticed that the neon yellow sphere was still beached. Upon closer inspection, the mysterious ball turned out to be a buoy that had lost its way in the Atlantic Ocean.
“I schlepped it home. It was big! About three feet in diameter. My husband kept asking me, What is that giant thing doing sitting in our driveway?”
A few emails and phone calls later, it was Katie Carroll, clerk on the M.V. Fishermen’s Preservation Trust board, who identified the stray orb as belonging to the lobster boat Terri Ann of Calico Lobster Co.
“When I heard it had traveled 55 miles, I was so surprised!” Captain Palembo was equally “shocked” when he received a phone call and photo from Sonnenthal, and that “it was intact, still inflated, had its bright color, and still looks like it’ll work.”
“A buoy like that is very prone on the surface to wind, not so much current.” said Palembo. He said it was likely freed due to the wear and tear of a harsh winter. The buoy’s northeastern journey likely involved bobbing for several days, and a combination of “a southerly wind, then a little southwest wind, then a little southeast wind.”
This isn’t the first time one of his oceanic bookmarks has blown far away. “A few years ago, I got a call from a woman who had found one of my buoys. I said, ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, I’ll stop by. Where are you?’ She said, ‘On the Outer Banks of North Carolina.’”
Palembo told The Times over the phone that runaway buoys are becoming more and more frequent. “We make our buoys so that they would break at a certain breaking strain if caught up in a right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), which are really endangered.” As the strength of the plastic that attaches the buoys to the underwater lines has been reduced, they break under less pressure.
Lobsterman and buoy were reunited on June 18 when Sonnenthal went ashore for her dogs’ veterinarian appointment.
“He was so happy to get it back!” Sonnenthal laughed. “And so grateful!”
Even with six or seven extras, to lose a $45 buoy is “frustrating, costly, and time-consuming,” Palembo said.
The moral of the story according to Palembo? “There are good people in this world.”
The captain plans to redeploy No. 310559 on the Terri Ann on Saturday.