A Ducky Experiment

THE space shuttle Endeavour, now on orbit, is using high-powered radar to observe several features on Earth - including a controlled oil spill in the North Sea. The idea is to study ocean currents.

That's one way to do it, we suppose. But somehow it lacks the everyman touch of another oceanographic effort: tracking thousands of rubber duckies - not to mention thousands more rubber turtles, frogs, and beavers - as they drift in the North Pacific.

In January 1992, a freighter ran into a storm as the ship steamed across the Pacific. A container loaded with bathtub toys, well, quacked open and spilled overboard. It didn't take long for the salt water to liberate the captives from their packaging to begin their journey. Reports began to bubble up of toys washing ashore in places like Sitka, Alaska. A little detective work identified the shipping company involved and the location of the duckie spill.

Since then, a pair of oceanographers from Seattle has been tracking the floating menagerie in the hope of gaining a better idea of how winds and currents interact. Their initial results have been published in the American Geophysical Society's journal.

Releasing bottles with notes in them or putting small homing transmitters on other floating objects are time-honored approaches to studies of wind and currents.

Seldom, however, have researchers been blessed with such a large number of floating objects with which to work. A shipment of Nike shoes went overboard in 1990. They are still being tracked, but because they get waterlogged and sink a bit, they are less affected by wind.

If initial computer simulations are right, a number of these faded travelers should make landfall in Britain, Iceland, or Norway sometime after the turn of the century.

In the meantime, when a toddler's bath time comes, or Sesame Street's Ernie is found singing the praises of his tub toy, remember: In an age of big-ticket research, thousands of those inexpensive critters are giving their all to advance the scientific knowledge of mankind.

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