CAROVA BEACH, N.C. -- Jeff Kelly motored down the four-wheel-drive beach north of Corolla and, with the help of his children, counted not seashells but 26 tabletop-sized plastic disks scattered along the surf line.
A closer look revealed what they were: compressed saucers of trash. Wild horses walked along the sand, stepping over the refuse Friday. A few of the disks were broken and the garbage within scattered.
Kelly took a few photos and collected one of the disks.
"They were really nasty," he said.
Other similar disks about 20 inches in diameter have washed ashore in Kill Devil Hills, said David Elder, the town's ocean-rescue supervisor.
"They look like the top of a small beach table," he said.
The garbage has drawn attention from residents and officials, and photos have circulated on social media. Some recognized what they were and reported them to the Navy.
The disks are consistent with those made on ships to compress plastic waste for easy storage, said Ted Brown, a spokesman for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command. Ships are not supposed to dump plastic into the ocean.
Navy ships use a processor to turn plastic waste into the disks, which take up one-30th the space, according to a Navy website. The disks are stored in a trash room until a ship reaches port and can dispose of them, Brown said. Food-contaminated items are supposed to be heat-sealed in odor barrier bags.
Trash does not usually make it to the top deck where it could fall overboard, Brown acknowledged, but he could not speculate on how the disks wound up on the Outer Banks beaches.
"The Navy is investigating," Brown said.
A Navy crew is coming to retrieve the trash, he added.
He also did not know which ship they could have come from. The disks are not usually labeled, but some pieces of trash with identifiable markings could have been compressed with the rest.
A few empty large plastic barrels also washed ashore, Kelly said. Brown did not know what those were.
Kill Devil Hills resident Heather Cremia has gathered 17 disks. One has Navy correspondence sealed on the surface bearing a logo that says "Commander Naval Surface Force."
Cremia found the first one in Kill Devil Hills on April 27, and then heard of people finding more of them and began a collection. Her dogs immediately wanted to lick the disks, she said. Some of them appeared to have been chewed by an animal before she retrieved them.
"The smell was so bad," she said. "They smelled like a dumpster. One was leaking nasty garbage juice."
The Navy called her to say a truck would be coming down in a couple of days, she said.
"We know the Navy made these," she said.