On January 10, 1992, a storm at sea in the Pacific set in motion one of the largest and most unusual studies into global ocean currents. A freighter traveling from China to America was caught up in the storm, which tipped the vessel into what I like to call the Uh-Oh Zone. The less than favorable maneuver saw several shipping containers unceremoniously dumped into the waters, one of which contained a consignment of 28,800 bath toys.
The toys were plastic-wrapped on mounted cardboard and each contained a yellow duck, a red beaver, a green frog, and a blue turtle made by The First Years company. The jolly characters burst forth from their shipping container, possibly due to its doors being opened by a collision with one of the other lost containers. It’s suspected a combination of soaking in salty water and being jostled about by currents and waves set the quartets free from their packaging. The toys were designed without any holes so successfully bobbed to the surface.
Scientists could never ethically dump tens of thousands of plastic toys into the ocean, but the accidental release of so many toys represented an opportunity too fortuitous to miss out on. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer employed the help of beachcombers to map the progress of their movements. Drift bottles have been used to study ocean currents, but their deployment is normally capped at 1,000 bottles, many of which may never be seen again. A bumper crop of 28,800 ocean current trackers was therefore a boon for oceanography as it would likely return much more data.
The Friendly Floatees, as they were called, first began to wash up on the Alaskan coast towards the end of 1992, approximately 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from their point of origin. A year went by and a further 400 followed suit traveling to the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska. Each reported animal was entered into an Ocean Surface Currents Simulation (OSCAR), a computer model created by Ebbesmeyer and his colleague James Ingraham. The model combines data on air pressure and the speed and direction of weather systems to map the path of ocean current indicators, such as the seafaring rubber ducks.
OSCAR successfully predicted the direction of the Friendly Floatees, which arrived in Washington state a couple of years later. Those that remained seaworthy drifted toward Japan and back to Alaska and some even made their way to the Bering Strait where they were frozen in Arctic ice. Ebbesmeyer estimated it would take several years for the Friendly Floatees to work their way across the Pole before the warmer climate of the Greenland Sea broke up the ice and set them free.
By 2007, bleached white by their journey but some still sporting “The First Years” branding that identified them, a small number began washing up on the south-western shores of the UK. It’s possible that there are still Friendly Floatees at sea to this day, whether caught up in one of the ocean’s great garbage patches or having washed up on shores where there are no people, or their significance is unknown.
The varied journeys of the bath toys taught oceanographers a lot about the connectedness of our seas. Ebbesmeyer coined the term ‘Flotsametrics” for these plastic animals, as they were a means of understanding the movements of flotsam (discarded items in the ocean). The story helped researchers piece together a clearer picture of how the sea works, inspired a book, and even earned a spot in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II.
Ocean science has come on leaps and bounds since the charismatic quartet first began their journey. They’ve since been replaced by drifting buoys equipped with GPS tracking devices that have allowed researchers to analyze and map the most likely path of plastic waste. This interactive map can now show you the most likely journey of trash dropped from your chosen location, which is signified, fittingly, by a rubber duck.