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Found: A Barnacle-Covered Basketball Lost at Sea

Spalding, did you see Wilson out there?

English skipper Annie Gilbert found a basketball that had been out to sea for quite a while.
English skipper Annie Gilbert found a basketball that had been out to sea for quite a while. Courtesy of Annie Gilbert

Humans toss all kind of things into the ocean, including approximately eight million tons of plastic each year, much to the detriment of, well, the entire ocean food web. Every sailor has seen trash like this and shed a tear, but sometimes you come across something surprising, out of place, that can generate a smile. You spy something just below the surface and think it could be a whale or a turtle and then …

In January 2012, I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with five other amateur sailors. About 500 nautical miles from our starting point in Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, we came across a lone surfboard riding the tall ocean waves. Earlier today, English skipper Annie Gilbert had one of these moments, too. Gilbert is a commercial skipper specializing in line-caught, sustainable fishing, and was sailing out of Poole, Dorset, when she spotted something weird. “We saw something bobbing and I thought: what’s that?” she writes in a direct message on Twitter.

The object turned out to be a Spalding basketball, relatively unmarred on the top but covered below in a thick beard of goose barnacles—it could be a close relative of Cast Away’s Wilson. Judging from the quantity of filter-feeding crustaceans attached to it, Gilbert thinks it may have been lost at sea for at least two years. After posting a photo on social media, the skipper and her husband released the ball back into the sea “to continue its journey.”

Gilbert and her husband released the the ball and its barnacle population "to continue its journey."
Gilbert and her husband released the the ball and its barnacle population “to continue its journey.” Courtesy of Annie Gilbert

Everyone who has spent any time at sea has a story about a weird encounter with a manmade objects. In July 2015, my friend and fellow amateur sailor Paolo Fresia found an intact white dinghy few miles off the coast of the Greek island of Rhodes. “It was around noon on a sunny and calm day of July 2015,” he says. “We decided to deviate course towards it, since it looked adrift and we were worried someone might be lost at sea.” Fresia had a doctor on board with him and they were ready for whatever they found, but luckily the boat was empty. They towed it back to Italy for disposal. While crossing from Tuscany to Sardinia, in Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea, two more of my friends, Stefano Minini and Sebastiano Gili, found a lone fruit crate about 30 nautical miles from the coast. Sebastiano’s cousin, Francesco Gili, a professional sailing instructor, bumped into a bright pink inflatable flamingo as he was sailing in the notoriously breezy Strait of Bonifacio, between the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. “We had about 25 knots of wind and suddenly I see this bright pink thing coming closer to us.”

Next time you’re out to sea, it’s worth keeping an eye out. Maritime salvage law—which has its roots in the medieval period—states that whatever you find at sea, unless reclaimed by its original owner, is yours to keep.