How Rubber Ducks Are Helping Scientists Chart The Oceans

Apr 2, 2021 0 comments

In early January 1992, the container ship Evergreen Ever Laurel departed Hong Kong for Washington. Among the millions of things that Ever Laurel was carrying was a consignment of plastic children’s bath toys manufactured in China for the Japanese toy company The First Years Inc. Four days later, on 10 January 1992, the freighter ran into a storm in the North Pacific. Hurricane-force winds and waves thirty-six feet tall rocked the 28,900-ton ship from side to side. Under the strain of the pitching and rolling, two tall columns of containers stacked six high above the deck snapped loose from their steel lashings and crashed into the sea. At least one of the containers burst open, spilling several dozen cardboard boxes containing approximately 29,000 bath toys into the ocean.

Photo: 88390133 © Teen00000 /

The cardboard rapidly broke down in the saline waters and under the harsh sun, discharging thousands of little packages onto the sea. Each package contained four hollow plastic animals—a red beaver, a blue turtle, a green frog, and a yellow duck—packed in a plastic shell with a cardboard back. Within a day, the water dissolved the glue releasing the plastic animals and setting them free from their plastic prison. The spill happened at approximately 44.7N, 178.1E, about 500 miles south of Shemaya Island in the Western Aleutian Islands and 1,000 miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan.

The news of a container ship losing 29,000 rubber toys attracted the attention of Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, who were working on an ocean surface current model at that time. The standard method of tracking ocean currents is to release drift bottle, five hundred to one thousand at a time, and chart their movement. Usually in such experiments, 98 percent of all floaters get lost, so researchers expect to recover only about 10 or 20 bottles from each drop. But here was 29,000 pieces of easily recognizable plastic, drifting about in the ocean and all released from a single spot. It was an opportunity that Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham could not afford to miss.

It wasn’t the first time Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had turned a mid-ocean spill into an oceanographic experiment. Three years earlier, an eastbound freighter got caught in a storm five hundred miles south of the Alaskan Peninsula, and several containers had gone overboard, including a shipment of eighty thousand Nike shoes. As the sneakers began washing up along Vancouver Island five months later, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham used the information from beachcombers and reconstructed the drift routes of some two hundred shoes. When the two scientists learned about the rubber duck spill in the North Pacific, they alerted their global network of beachcombers to keep their eyes out for the shiny plastic toys.

Travel route of the friendly floatees. Image by NordNordWest/Wikimedia Commons

Ten months after the incident, the first rubber ducks began to wash up along the Alaskan Coast, 2,000 miles from where they fell. By August 1993, some 400 of them were found over a stretch of 850 km of coastline along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska. Over the next several years, these “friendly floaties” were discovered at various locations all over the world, from Scottish islands to Newfoundland, Eastern Australia to Tacoma, and along the coast of Hawaii and Japan. By studying the route of these floaties, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham developed a model of the ocean currents and from this model they correctly predicted where and when these yellow ducks and blue turtles are going to wash up.

Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham’s model correctly predicted landfall of the toys in Washington state in 1996. They theorized that after their first appearance in Alaska, the floaties had travelled westward to Japan, back to Alaska, and then drifted northwards through the Bering Strait and become trapped in the Arctic pack ice. They moved slowly with the ice across the Pole taking five to six years until they reached the North Atlantic. When the ice thawed, the floaties were released and from there the ocean currents took them to the eastern coast of the United States and to coast of the UK.

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer with flotsam he uses to monitor ocean currents. Photo: Rick Rickman/Wikimedia Commons

Nearly three decades later, the floaties are still making rounds of the ocean, occasionally washing up on distant beaches where they instantly become prized items, some reportedly fetching prices as high as $1,000. The ducks and beavers have been bleached white, but otherwise intact. The turtles and frogs still have their original colors. The slow rate of degradation proves that plastic pollution is effectively indestructible, and all the plastic garbage that we dump into the seas and oceans will be around for centuries to come.

Over the decades, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham have tracked many similar spills, such as the Lego spill of 1997 where millions of Lego pieces fell overboard in the sea off Cornwall. Those Lego pieces have drifted some 62,000 miles since then. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham is expected to have many such opportunities to study ocean currents in future. Containers routinely get lost at sea. A 2011 survey by the World Shipping Council estimated that an average of 675 containers were lost at sea each year between 2008-10. In 2014, the average annual loss between 2011-13 was approximately 2,683 containers.

Now funded by NASA, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham’s model, called Ocean Surface Currents Simulation (OSCURS), has many practical applications aside from predicting the movement of flotsam, such as helping fishing vessels navigate and locate shoals of fish.

# Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanograp hers, Environmentalists & Fools Including the Author Who Went in Search of Them
# The Friendly Floatees, British Sea Fishing
# Friendly Floatees, Rubber Ducks Revealing Ocean Secrets, Science Reporter
# Eric Heupel, How does a floating plastic duckie end up where it does?, Scientific American


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