How Did the Reunion Flaperon Float?

inboard end

Inboard end of flaperon, top. Click to expand.

One of the many important details yet to emerge publicly about the Reunion flaperon is how it floated in the water. Presumably, French investigators have immersed it in saltwater to see how it settles. Since the results of that test haven’t been released, the only clue available to us is the the sea life visible in photographs. As I’ve written, the flaperon is liberally encrusted with goose barnacles. These animals are a type of crustacean that attaches while young to a floating object and spends its entire adult life affixed to the same spot. Since they obviously can only survive underwater, every part upon which they were growing must have been well submerged for a considerable period of time.

Above, the inboard end of the flaperon, as seen from the top looking down. This is where the ID plate should have been attached. Barnacles are growing all around the rim of this end, and to my eye extend beyond the plane of both the upper and the lower surface, so this entire end appears to have been submerged.

More pics after the jump.

The next picture shows the other end, the outboard end, again looking from the top down.

Outboard end

Outboard end, upper side. Click to expand.

Again, barnacle growth is profuse all the way around, especially on the upper surface, but it seems to extend beyond the plane of the lower surface as well, though this is harder to see. Here’s a close up:


Closeup of outboard leading edge. Click to enlarge

Next is a shot of the flaperon upper surface. Barnacles scattered liberally about, though they seem to be happiest on the jagged exposed honeycomb where the trailing edge appears to have been ripped off; it’s the topmost edge in this image:

Top of flaperon

Flaperon upper surface, trailing edge at top and inboard side to the right. Click to enlarge

A view of the trailing edge shows that barnacles have enthusiastically colonized both the upper and lower surfaces:


Flaperon trailing edge, piece carried upside-down with inboard edge to the right. Click to enlarge

Finally, here’s a shot of the underside of the flaperon:

MH370 search: Debris found on Reunion being sent to France

Bottom of flaperon, with outboard edge to the right and trailing edge up. Click to enlarge

This one really deserves to be seen at full resolution. This is clearly the least barnacle-covered side of the flaperon–the critters seem not particularly to favor undamaged, painted surfaces. But it seems to my eye that even here they have colonized all the way around the edge of this face, in greater or lesser densities.

In other words, it’s barnacles all the way around.

UPDATE 8/27/2015: One of the most frequent comments I’ve received is that for an object that’s spent nearly a year and a half in the ocean, it doesn’t have much growing on it. Reader @Matbythesea posted a link to a story containing this image:


Click to expand.


It shows a Japanese skiff that was carried out to sea by the 2011 tsunami and washed up in Washington State 15 months later, so was adrift for about the same amount of time that a piece of MH370 would be today. Like the flaperon, it is covered primarily in goose barnacles, though perhaps of a different species. As it happens, I was on the phone yesterday with famed ocean-drift expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer, professor emeritus of oceanography at the University of Washington, talking about the flaperon, and he specifically cautioned me that it is not possible to nail down the route and time afloat of drifting debris from the animal life growing on it, because things grow at different rates depending on, or instance, how nutrient-rich the water happens to be. Still, the difference in population density is striking. One other thing I’d note is that it appears that the skiff floated with its stern in the air with a foot or two of freeboard, with algae growing on the surface just below the water, and the goose barnacles growing a foot or so deeper. On the flaperon, in contrast, we do not see an intermediate zone of algae growth.