How Thousands of Rubber Bath Toys Helped Unlock the Ocean’s Secrets

How Thousands of Rubber Bath Toys Helped Us Understand the Ocean​

The container ship Ever Laurel was en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. On January 10, 1992, it was only halfway to its destination when it encountered a violent storm. The ship survived, but twelve of its shipping containers were washed overboard.

While the owners of those lost containers presumably wrote off their losses, there was something in one of them that would help oceanographers unlock the mysteries of the ocean’s currents. The tools that would be such a boon were 29,000 rubber bath toys. Their contribution to science and their long and unlikely journey is one of the great unexpected triumphs of modern oceanography.

Ten months after the Ever Laurel encountered the storm, a beachcomber in Sitka, Alaska made a curious discovery. Ten brightly-colored rubber bath toys had washed ashore. These were just a few of the bath toys that had been lost at sea 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away.

The toys are known as Friendly Floatees. Made in China, they come in the form of yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs. All of them are manufactured without holes, so they will not sink by taking on water.

When the cargo container spilled into the North Pacific Ocean, it opened and released 28,800 Friendly Floatees from their confinement. The cardboard backing cards attached to each toy quickly dissolved in the salty water, leaving the small toys free to bounce around in the waters of the world’s biggest ocean.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer Friendly Floatees rubber ducks oceans
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer with some recovered Friendly Floatees.

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer had been attempting to chart the ocean’s currents when he heard about the discovery of the Floatees. He and fellow researcher James Ingraham put out the word that they were interested in any other bath toys that happened to wash ashore. They didn’t have long to wait. They soon had hundreds of Floatees, recovered over a 530 mile (850 km) shoreline. Two weeks later, twenty were found along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska. By August 1993, 400 rubber bath toys had been located and their locations carefully logged by the researchers’ computer.

With some extrapolation from the computer, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham correctly predicted the landfall of more Floatees in Washington state in 1996. With the computer simulations confirmed, the scientists calculated that the brightly-colored toys had traveled westward from the point where they were washed overboard to Japan, back to Alaska, then north through the Bering Strait. There, they spent a frigid 5-6 years frozen in the Arctic pack ice, slowly moving across the Pole. Once on the other side, they thawed in the North Atlantic and continued their journeys.

Route of Friendly Floatees rubber ducks bath toys ocean currents
The route taken by the Friendly Floatees since being washed overboard in 1992. Click on image to expand.

In 2001, the little yellow rubber ducks were tracked, floating serenely above the area where the RMS Titanic sank.

First Years, Inc., the company that marketed the Floatees, helped encourage reporting of fresh discoveries of the toys. They offered a $100 U.S. savings bond to anyone who recovered a Floatee in Iceland, New England, or Canada. This publicity helped encourage beachcombers to report their findings. In 2004, more toys were recovered than in any of the preceding three years.

The travels of the bath toys had not yet ended. The oceanographers predicted that more of the Floatees were destined to continue eastward to Greenland before going on to Europe. In 2007, a small number of Floatees, now bleached white by their journey, began to wash ashore in the United Kingdom.

The curious treasures found by beachcombers around the world provided answers to questions oceanographers have asked for centuries. The complexity of the ocean’s currents has made accurate charting extremely complicated. The standard approach has been to release 500-1,000 sealed bottles and await recovery by a beachcomber. With only a 1-2% recovery rate, this presents an incomplete picture.

The mass release of the Friendly Floatees is something no ethical scientist would have been able to do. When it happened by accident, however, the results presented an unmatched opportunity. The recovered Floatees represent about 1.4% of the total that was released. Even so, our understanding of the ocean’s currents has been enhanced immeasurably.

One could say that the entire project presented scientists with a lot to quack about.

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