Bioforensic Analysis of Suspected MH370 Debris UPDATED x2

Blaine Alan Gibson with 'No Step'
Blaine Alan Gibson with ‘No Step.’ Photo courtesy Blaine Alan Gibson


Recently two pieces of debris that may have come from missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were found on the coast of Mozambique.

The first piece was discovered on February 27 by American lawyer Blaine Alan Gibson on a sand bar near the town of Vilankulo (top left). Composed of fiberglass skin around an aluminum honeycomb core, and bearing the words “no step,” the piece is widely presumed to be a part of a 777 horizontal stabilizer. A fastener found attached to the part carried an identifying number that is consistent with, though not exclusive to, a 777. Soon after the find was made public Malaysia’s transport minister Liow Tiong Lai tweeted that there was a “high possibility debris found in Mozambique belongs to a B777.”

Closeup of 'No Step' exterior
Closeup of “No Step” exterior. Photo courtesy Blaine Alan Gibson.


The second object was reported on March 11 by South African teenager Liam Lötter, who found it on a beach near the resort town of Xai Xai in southern Mozambique in December. Approximately a meter long, it carries the stencilled code “676EB,” which is written on the right-hand outboard flap farings of Boeing 777s. Its material, a hybrid of fiberglass and carbon fiber, is also consistent with a 777 flap fairing.

Lötter holding flap fairing
Liam Lötter with the object he found in Mozambique, presumed to be part of a 777 flap fairing.


The fact that MH370 was the only Boeing 777 lost over the ocean lends weight to the supposition that both parts come from that aircraft.

The pieces’ appearance, however, is quite different from that of the first (and so far, only confirmed) piece of MH370, the plane’s right-hand flaperon, which was found on Réunion on July 29, 2015. Every edge of the flaperon, and much of its broad surface area, was encrusted with goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. The flaperon also had been settled across much of its surface by a brownish algae. Both of the recently discovered pieces are relatively free of marine growth.

This article will explore what the presence or absence of marine growth indicates about how the three pieces traveled through the ocean.

Marine Fouling

When man-made material is immersed in an oceanic ecosystem, a number of plant, animal, and microbial species will begin to settle and grow upon its surface, a process known as “marine biofouling” because historically the process has attracted the most attention as a nuisance to mariners.

Marine biologists study the process using devices called “settling plates” or “fouling panels,” rectangles of material which are put in the water and then observed as time goes by. “The first thing that settles is microalgae, which looks like a slimy brown scummy scuzz,” says Cathryn Clarke Murray, a marine biologist who studies floating debris at the North Pacific Marine Science Organization. Out in the open ocean, microalgae is followed by bryozoans, moss-like filter feeders, and goose barnacles of the genus Lepas. “I’ve found paper bags that have blown into the Pacific and have barnacle larvae on them,” says Bloomsburg University professor Cynthia Venn, who has been studying marine organisms for decades.

vancouver_port monitoring 2010 067 copy
Example of a fouling panel colonized by golden star tunicates (aka sea squirts) during a three-month immersion near Vancouver, Canada. Photo courtesy Cathryn Clarke Murray


Given the great size of the Earth’s oceans, and the relatively slow speed at which objects drift (on the order of dozens of miles per day), objects encountered on the open sea have plenty of time to become colonized. During a survey of debris in the Pacific, marine biologist Miriam Goldstein collected 242 objects and found that all had organisms growing on them except for two that were one square inch in size. University of Florida biologist Mike Gil conducted a similar survey voyage in the eastern Pacific and says that “we didn’t find any clean debris, bottle cap size and larger.”

The mix of species present on an object can yield clues about how it has drifted, a process that renowned invertebrate biologist James Carlton, director of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program, has labeled “bioforensics.” In his study of marine debris washed out to sea during the Japanese tsunami of 2011, Carlton says, he found “we can track debris across the ocean using two species of bryozoans. One’s cold water, one’s warm water. When I get a boat that lands in Washington or Oregon and has the warm-water bryozoan, it tells me that it went well south before turning north.” Similarly, Carlton has been able to identify debris that traveled south along the coast of Japan before crossing the Pacific by the presence of sea life endemic to that area.

Unfortunately, the flaperon discovered on Réunion Island has been closely held by French investigators since its discovery, so is not known if such a bioforensic analysis has been conducted.

While the presence of certain species can indicate the route its home drifted, the size of individuals can indicate how long an object has been at sea—with some important caveats. Water temperature and the presence of nutrients both affect how quickly an organism will grow. Those on tsunami debris that was carried along through the nutrient-rich waters of the Aleutian chain and wound up in the Pacific Northwest grew faster, and in greater profusion, than those which grew on debris that followed a more tropical route and came ashore in Hawaii.

In order to gauge the time that an object has been in the water, then, it’s important to have a baseline against which to measure. For instance, here’s a boat that spent eight months drifting from Australia to the island of Mayotte in the western Indian ocean.

Mayotte boat


By comparing the size of the barnacles with the known dimensions of the boat, it is possible to ascertain that they have a maximum capitulum length of 3.5 cm.

And here are Lepas barnacles that grew on the Réunion flaperon.


Given the similarity in latitudes between Réunion and Mayotte, and the fact that the flaperon is believed also to have begun its journey off the west coast of Australia, the temperatures and nutrient levels experienced by both objects should be roughly the same. Applying the same photographic analysis yields a capitulum length of 2.3 cm. Adjusting known Lepas growth rates for the age and size of the Mayotte Lepas specifimens, the size of the Lepas barnacles on the Réunion flaperon suggests it was in water between four and six months.

This technique cannot be applied to the objects found in Mozambique because there are no identifiable forms of marine life visible on them. This absence of visible growth, however, allows us to put an upper bound on the amount of time they were in the water.

“If I put a piece of fiberglass into the ocean, I would expect to see that kind of scummy scuzz about a month after,” says Murray. However, in photographs the pieces of Mozambique debris “look pretty clean to me,” she says.

Flap fairing closeup
A closeup of the presumed flap fairing.


Shown an image of the new debris and asked how long the pieces look like they’ve been in the water, Jim Carlton says, “My gut instinct would be [that these pieces have been] not long at sea. Not long at sea, because we presume that if you are at sea, you’re going to get Lepas and bryozoans and other oceanic species on you. If you drift in the coastal zone, you’ll pick up coastal barnacles.” Given all that, he cites a possible immersion time of “a couple of days.”

No Step Closeup 2

No Step closeup copy
A closeup of ‘No Step’ honeycomb


Sam Chan, who studies invasive species at Oregon State University and regularly conducts settling plate experiments on the Pacific coast, says that he finds the clean condition of the honeycombs to be telling. “Not to see marine growth in the honeycomb structure was surprising to me,” he says. “The settling plates we put in the water actually look very much like the honeycomb structure, because it’s a good environment for them to settle.” He says the amount of time the objects have been in the water “could be a couple of weeks. It’s certainly not indicative of something that has been in the water for multiple years, let alone even half a year.” He adds, “If there’s no fouling, was it even in the water?”

Local Mozambique officials who were able to examine the Gibson piece firsthand were similarly skeptical. Joao de Abreu, the director of Mozambique’s National Civil Aviation Institute, was quoted by his government’s official news agency as saying that the object was too clean to have been in the ocean for two years.

Henry Carson, a marine biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, points out that fish sometimes congregate around floating debris in the ocean and can reduce the populations of organisms growing on it. “A colleague of mine encountered a piece of a boat in the middle of the Pacific–I believe also made of fiberglass–that had very few barnacles–and a lot of fish,” he says. “Presumably the grazing fish had kept the barnacles from becoming established. Your pieces could also have sheltered a substantial fish community. Not sure the fish would keep it 100% clean, though, especially of all algae and bryozoans.”

In the Pacific Northwest, it’s not uncommon for beachcombers to find pieces of tsunami debris that have no significant accumulation of marine life on them, but these tend to be highly buoyant objects like pieces of polystyrene foam or smooth, round buoys and floats. “I can only think this stuff rolls on the sea surface,” says Carlton. “Between the UV and getting baked and dried out, dessication’s going to do a job, these things come in whistle clean.”

AK tsunami debris
An example of tsunami found washed up on US coast with almost no biofouling.


Obviously that neither of the Mozambique pieces would fit that description, but Carlton points out that it might be possible to imagine a scenario in which they floated across an ocean and then became beached, whereupon it dried out, was foraged upon by terrestrial animals and scoured by wind and sand, then washed out to sea again for a few days before becoming beached again. “One can imagine these scenarios,” he says. “Their probability is another matter.”

Other biologists disagree that weathering and predation could plausibly erase all trace of prior colonization. “We usually see some evidence left, even if it’s been dried out on the beach for a while,” says Murray. “You would see barnacle shells, or the byssal threads from the mussels, even if the mussel’s gone. Usually you see something. I can’t see anything in these pictures.”

“Even if beached and tumbled and baked for some time, I would expect to see a lattice of bryozoan skeletons, barnacle attachment scars, and some staining from where algae had grown. A lot of those things are pretty resilient,” says Carson. “I don’t see any of that in the close-up pictures.”

Says Chan, “There could be some time of feeding or predation, but within that honeycomb structure you would probably still see some remnants, and I just don’t see any.”

Carlton agrees that the condition of the Mozambique debris is puzzling. “Without any bioforensic evidence,” he says, “it’s just a headscratcher.”


The absence of biofouling on a piece of suspected aircraft debris recovered in Mozambique in December, 2015 suggests that it entered the water no earlier than October of that year. The absence of biofouling on a piece of suspected aircraft debris recovered in Mozambique in February, 2016 suggests that it entered the water no earlier than January, 2016. It is entirely possible that one or both of the Mozambique objects were never in the ocean at all.

All of these results counterindicate a scenario in which these pieces of debris were generated by a crash on March 8, 2014 near the area currently being searched by the ATSB. It is incumbent on all the relevant authorities to make public the details of a close examination of the parts, in order to determine how these objects could have arrived in the western Indian Ocean.

Update 3-17-16

I’m adding a couple of videos that Blaine very graciously shared with me, to show how his piece floated in the water. It should be fairly clear that this is not a spherical-float kind of situation. One end of the piece is denser than seawater and is going to be submerged whether or not the piece is occasionally flipped by waves.



Update 3-18-16

David Griffin, an oceanographer with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), has expended considerable effort working with drift models to understand how ocean currents may have dispersed debris from a crash site in the southern Indian Ocean. In response to Blaine Alan Gibson’s Mozambique find, he writes on the CSIRO web site: “this item is not heavily encrusted with sea life” and therefore “time at sea is therefore possibly much less than the 716 days that have elapsed since 14 March 2014.”

A number of readers have speculated about various factors that may have kept marine organisms from taking up residence on these objects. The fact is that unless a piece is made entirely of smooth unbroken plastic (and usually even then), it is going to acquire a coating of marine life after a certain amount of time at sea. To see a lot of examples of how objects of different size, shape, and material accumulate debris, here is a gallery of Japanese tsunami debris found washed up in Hawaii. And here is a gallery of stuff that washed up in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.

362 thoughts on “Bioforensic Analysis of Suspected MH370 Debris UPDATED x2”

  1. @Warren Plats. The No Step fragmented honeycomb (bottom two photos above)looked to me as though it had been crushed but the corrosion you attribute it to seems closer to the mark. But some musing pops up. Why the total separation just in that zone? A quality problem, in epoxy for example?

    Secondly what about the blue/green sheen on the under (outer) skin and the apparent deposit on the opposite inside skin, about matching, where the honeycomb is missing? Part of the deposit seems to match white pock marks on the top skin. They might therefore have been in contact.

    Thirdly, the other bald patch on the inside skin where honeycomb is missing has no cover from the inside skin and is a darker green. Maybe that has been exposed to sun on the beach, the colour difference of the two greens giving a clue how long it has been there?

    Any ideas? Could await the inspection results but detail of them could be a while.

  2. my above second last para;
    for “…on the inside skin where honeycomb is missing…” read outside for inside.

  3. Hello everyone,

    I have been very interested in this story ever since the first news reports began to come in back in March of 2014. I have been lurking on this site for some time but have not contributed anything to the discussion as I do not have any special expertise in the field of aviation. When I read today that some of you had seen a recent news article about MH370 that was written in French, I thought that perhaps I could make a small contribution to the forum by translating the article into English and posting it here in the comments section. The article appeared on the Swiss news site “20 Minutes.” I have done my best to translate it into idiomatically correct English for those of you who are not fluent in French.

    The Official Version Is “Not Credible”

    A French journalist has investigated the mysterious disappearance of the Boeing aircraft belonging to Malaysia Airlines. She considers a lack of transparency to be the “major shortcoming” in this affair. Interview.

    Two years after the disappearance of flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, the French journalist Florence de Changy, who has investigated this matter, feels that “the official version is not credible” and that “there are people who know.” In her book, “Flight MH370 Has Not Disappeared,” the correspondent for the Monde and RFI in Hong Kong has explored every path. She considers a lack of transparency right from the beginning to be the “major shortcoming” in this affair.

    You explain that the official version does not hold up.
    Who is hiding something in this affair, and why?:

    “My investigation effectively demonstrates that the official version is not based on any hard evidence. It’s a story that is being pushed on the families of the 239 people who have disappeared, and they are being asked to accept it without the smallest piece of verifiable evidence. Above all, it is a story that is not credible. A Boeing 777 does not simply disappear, particularly when on a routine flight in ideal weather conditions in one of the most heavily watched areas of the planet. I have not encountered one military person who believes that version of events.

    My book attempts, therefore, to do the opposite of the official story: to hand over information about the few real facts we have to the public so that people can decide for themselves what really happened in the middle of the night on March 8, 2014 above the Gulf of Thailand. But, the investigation is not over. There are still missing pieces of the puzzle.”

    You note that it has not yet been 100% proven that the aircraft debris found on Reunion Island comes from the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777. Have Malaysia and the French justice system been lying?:

    “I think that France, because it is responsible for this piece of the investigation, still needs to provide many answers to questions about the flaperon. Once again, there was just a statement made affirming that the piece came from MH370. But the families had no right to participate in the analysis of this piece in Toulouse (in southwest France). Why?

    Could the physical characteristics of the flaperon be made known: its height, its weight, its mass, its volume? Could the public be allowed to know the results of the buoyancy tests that were done on the flaperon which, in any case, performed remarkably well by staying afloat for more than 500 days and traveling more than 4000 kilometers, as the crow flies, across the Indian Ocean (thus, perhaps even farther)? More than 500 days, even though the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that no debris from the plane would still be able to float 50 days after it was lost.

    Could we be allowed to know the precise characteristics of the barnacles that grew on the flaperon? According to certain international experts on these small crustaceans who were questioned by the American journalist Jeff Wise, the barnacles which were seen on the flaperon had not been there longer than six months. Again, to put an end to these rumors, it is up to France to communicate openly, precisely, scientifically. I have contacted some of the experts who were asked to analyze the flaperon. Not one has responded.”

    Do you think this is going to end with everyone knowing what happened? What would it take for that to occur?:

    “The people who know a little bit of the story must share, in one way or another, the little that they know. My investigation has moved forward with half sentences. We must continue to search for real debris. And the media must continue to investigate and refuse to leave this story in the mystery box.”

  4. Lauren H,

    “The SilkAir 185 crash report suspects the a/c went supersonic moments before impact.”

    In my understanding the engines were functioning in the case of SilkAir. The takeoff weight was 51,856 kg. The engines were 2xCFM 56-3B2, meaning 2×98 = 196 kN additional downward force, or 4 m/s^2 acceleration on top of the gravity. The dimensions of B737 are smaller than dimentions of B777. To make a fair comparison I need to do some calcs.

  5. @Lauren

    I’m not qualified to speculate about the effect the engine would have on the way water impinges on the flaperon. We have or rather, the French have, an item that shows all the signs of having come off in the wash.

    I think I’ve said my piece on the flaperon – as Jeff suggested, probably better to wait and see what the experts say.

    Turning now to the engines themselves; would not two windmilling Trent engines absorb enough energy to limit the speed during descent. All I know is an unfeathered prop can ruin your whole day.

  6. @JDB

    Thanks for your effort.

    I was particularly interested in de Changy’s remarks relative to the French forensics which I interpret to be negative. I certainly support that interpretation.

    It is simply not plausible that the French are still investigating the flaperon. Even if you give them the wildest possible benefit of the doubt, why would an interim report not be forthcoming? de Changy does not speculate that the French have provided details to the Malays which the Malays are not sharing, which has been my working assumption. Who knows? In any case the lack of any forensic results in the public domain is truly appalling.

    I have a lot of alternatives running around in my brain relative to the Mozambique debris, but I feel enough has already been said here with respect to that, and I prefer to wait for the official results to be made public.

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