Drifting rubber duckies chart oceans of plastic

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.

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.

And they were not the only pieces of plastic flotsam around. The Pacific gyre, a huge circular current "is like a toilet that never flushes," says Moore, who has run a number of scientific expeditions to two particularly polluted giant eddies he calls the "garbage patches."

In those areas, he astonished the scientific community by finding six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton. Broken down into smaller and smaller particles, "it is insinuating itself into the bottom of the food chain," he worries.

Larger pieces are probably eaten by albatross and other birds, he says: of 28,000 pieces of plastic he analyzed in the Eastern Garbage Patch, only 83 fragments were tan-colored. The rest had probably been snapped up - mistaken for shrimp, he says.

And since plastic is a sponge for pollutants such as PCBs and other chemicals which are estrogenic, Moore worries, "we are changing the sex of the ocean and its creatures," feminizing them.

Pairs of female seagulls have been found nesting together on the California coast, he points out, wondering whether this might not have something to do with the plastic in their diet.

Clues for science

Those plastic ducks that avoided becoming a polar bear's breakfast, or being crushed by icebergs, could tell scientists unexpected things about the ocean, depending on where they eventually wash up, says Ebbesmeyer.

And their story is helpful in educating lay people, adds Peter Killworth, who designs models at Southampton University's Oceanographic Centre in England. "Many people don't realize that the oceans move, that what happens here depends on what happened there," he says. "The ducks are a good lesson in how the environment works in a global way."

En route, the ducks may well have bumped into other equally unlikely denizens of the deep, many of them also spilled from the estimated 10,000 cargo containers that go overboard each year. "It's hard to believe what's floating out there," says Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked Nike trainers, Lego building bricks, hockey gloves, umbrella handles, and even a 50-foot-long US Air Force booster rocket.

This spring, a time of unusual southwesterly winds in the Pacific, West Coast beachcombers have found booty that appears to have been in the sea for decades, such as a plastic ball decorated with 40-year-old cartoon characters, and Japanese glass fishing- net buoys that have not been used for half a century.

"I run a flotsam headquarters" collating informal reports from 1,000 beachcombers around the world, Ebbesmeyer says. And while people in the Pacific Northwest know to look out for what he calls "the most wanted animals," the rest of the world doesn't.

The First Years has received a dozen or so calls from people claiming to have found one of its disappeared ducks, "but they have all been the wrong kind of duck, just things kids have lost on the beach," says company spokeswoman Laura Tomasetti.

"There are so many species of plastic duck out there," sighs Ebbesmeyer, still hoping that a genuine sighting somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, or perhaps in Scandinavia, will confirm his predictions.

"It's a reasonable theory, and like all theories it needs some data," he says. "You can learn a lot from a duck on a beach."

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