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Drifting rubber duckies chart oceans of plastic

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2003


Theirs is an epic tale of resilience and pluck, a seafarer's yarn of high-seas adventure that has seen them brave some of the world's wildest waters in their 11-year odyssey from the Pacific Ocean toward landfall in Europe.

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They have bobbed through storms that would have wrecked larger vessels, to drift deliberately down the Bering Strait. They have patiently borne a four-year spell trapped in Arctic ice packs, to float freely into the Atlantic.

And now, buoyed perhaps by the prospect of an end to their pelagic paddling, a flotilla of yellow bathtub rubber ducks, lost at sea when they fell off a container ship in the North Pacific in 1992, is about to wash up on Europe's western shores, according to an oceanographer who has been tracking them for years.

More of the much-traveled toys are thought to be heading down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, where their arrival would offer new data on ocean currents and wind patterns. And the US company that made the ducks is offering $100 in savings bonds to anyone who finds one.

Nobody has actually seen one of these ducks in the Atlantic yet, says Curt Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer and the international dean of beachcombers, who has put out a global call for sightings. But their presence there "is a prediction based on the drifts of thousands of other objects in my files," he says.

The plastic ducks were part of a consignment of 29,000 bathtub toys, including beavers, turtles, and frogs, that ended up in the Pacific when a container ship en route from China to the United States lost some of its deck cargo in heavy seas.

An Alaskan landing

A number of the critters ended up on the beaches of Alaska, but from those latitudes there is only one way out of the Pacific - through the Bering Strait, past towering icebergs and the curious gaze of walruses, around the northern coast of Greenland, and into the Atlantic.

Some marine experts, including Capt. Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in California, doubt there is anything of the wandering waterfowl left to be found after 11 years. And Captain Moore knows a thing or two about the subject: He describes himself as having "dedicated his time and resources to understanding and remediating the ocean 's plastic load."

"I think it's a bit of a fraud to suggest they are going to find ducks in a whole duck shape," he says. More likely, he adds, the flock has broken up into fragments. "If anyone finds a whole duck, it will be very brittle," he predicts. "They may have to glue it together to claim their reward."

But if the ducks - sold by The First Years, of Avon, Mass. - are as sturdy as their friends the beavers, that may not be the case. Last weekend, at a beachcombers' fair in Sitka, Alaska, Mr. Ebbesmeyer said a boy showed him a sun-bleached beaver he had found nearby just the other week.

"It was quite pliable, just faded," says Ebbesmeyer, who lives in Seattle. "The amazing thing about these toys is that they are very hardy."

Computer models of ocean currents and wind directions developed by a friend of Ebbesmeyer's, Jim Ingraham, accurately predicted the arrival of the ducks off the Washington State coast in 1995, after they had been round the Pacific's circular current three times, in a 45,000 mile journey.