Lost at sea: On the trail of Moby-Duck

The fate of a shipment of bath toys missing since 1992 has led to greater knowledge of the world's oceans

A A A

They are small, yellow and designed to endure nothing more stressful than a quick journey around a bathtub. But after almost 20 years lost at sea, a flotilla of plastic ducks has been hailed for revolutionising mankind's knowledge of ocean science.

The humble toys are part of a shipment of 29,000 packaged ducks, frogs, turtles and beavers made in China for a US firm called First Years Inc. They were in a crate that fell off the deck of a container ship during a journey across the Pacific from Hong Kong in January 1992.

Since that moment, they have bobbed tens of thousands of miles. Some washed up on the shores of Hawaii and Alaska; others have been stuck in Arctic ice. A few crossed the site near Newfoundland where the Titanic sank, and at least one is believed to have been found on a beach in Scotland.

Now the creatures, nicknamed the "Friendly Floatees" by various broadcasters who have followed their progress over the years, have been immortalised in a book titled Moby-Duck. It not only chronicles their extraordinary odyssey, and what it has taught us about currents, but also lays bare a largely ignored threat to the marine environment: the vast numbers of containers that fall off the world's cargo ships.

No one knows exactly how often containers are lost at sea, due to the secretive nature of the international shipping industry. But Donovan Hohn, the book's author, says that oceanographers put the figure at anything from several hundred to 10,000 a year. While some sink, others burst open, throwing their contents into the upper layer of the ocean where they often pose a threat to wildlife. Plastic debris can be particularly hazardous, since it eventually breaks into small particles, which are eaten by fish and mammals.

"I've heard tales of containers getting lost that are full of those big plastic bags that dry cleaners use," says Mr Hohn. "I've also heard of crates full of cigarettes going overboard, which of course end up having their butts ingested by marine animals. In fact, one of the endnotes in my book lists the contents of a dead whale's belly: it was full of trash. Plastic pollution is a real problem. It's far from the greatest environmental danger to the ocean, but it is one of the most visible, and that means it can be important as a symbol of less visible damage, such as overfishing, agricultural run-off and the warming of the oceans."

The fate of the ducks has been studied by a small but devoted band of enthusiasts since roughly six months after the accident, when the ducks began to wash up in large numbers on the beaches of Alaska, Canada, and America's Pacific north-west.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer and enthusiastic beachcomber who lives in Seattle, used records held by First Years Inc to trace the ship they had been carried on. By interviewing its captain, he was able to locate the exact point at which their journey began. He was able to track their rate of progress on the constantly circulating current, or "gyre", which runs between Japan, south-east Alaska, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands.

"We always knew that this gyre existed. But until the ducks came along, we didn't know how long it took to complete a circuit," he says. "It was like knowing that a planet is in the solar system but not being able to say how long it takes to orbit. Well, now we know exactly how long it takes: about three years."

Mr Ebbesmeyer estimates that a couple of thousand of the ducks are still in the gyre, and have completed half a dozen circuits. Others went south towards Hawaii or north to the Bering Sea, through which they are thought to have reached Europe. "I have a website that people use to send me pictures of the ducks they find on beaches all over the world," he says. "I'm able to tell quickly if they are from this batch. I've had one from the UK which I believe is genuine. A photograph of it was sent to me by a woman judge in Scotland."

Understanding the 11 major gyres that move water around the world's oceans is thought to be highly important, says Mr Ebbesmeyer, who has also tracked lost shipments of 51,000 Nike shoes. It will help climatologists to predict the effects of climate change on the marine environment.

The fate of the ducks also tells us about the longevity of plastic, he adds. "The ones washing up in Alaska after 19 years are still in pretty good shape."

News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'