SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Tub toys reveal much about ocean currents
Anchorage Daily News


July 28, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- You've probably heard the tale.

How a ship bound for Seattle foundered in rough seas in 1992, dumping nearly 29,000 rubber tub toys into the Gulf of Alaska.

Ten months later, Sitka residents were scooping them from the beaches in armfuls. Some still refer to it as the rubber ducky invasion.




Between November 1992 and August 1993, scientists calculated about 400 plastic ducks, frogs, turtles and beavers were discovered between Cordova and Coronation Island, west of Prince of Wales Island. Not since 80,000 Nike shoes flew off a ship two years earlier has flotsam so excited the beachcombing community - or oceanographers. Three authorities on the toys are headed for Alaska in the next two weeks.

And the story is still unfolding.

Now it's beachcombers on the Atlantic Ocean's turn. The mighty tub toys appear to have transited the top of the world, hitching rides in the Arctic ice. In 2003, there were two convincing sightings of the tiny critters, one in Scotland and one on a beach in Kennebunkport, Maine. This according to retired oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked the toys since 1993 with help from a sophisticated computer simulator developed by his friend and fellow oceanographer Jim Ingraham.

"I used to go up and down the coast like Paul Revere, telling people, 'They should be here, they should be here,' " Ebbesmeyer said. With his quarterly newsletter, the Beachcombers' Alert, he lets hundreds of avid beachcombers know the likely landing zones of all kinds of flotsam, from plastic toys to hockey gear to propane cylinders.

The errant cylinders are the latest beach booty to come in with the tide.

"As long as we know when and where it went into the water, we can tell you where it's likely to go and when it'll arrive," Ebbesmeyer said.

"Shipping companies don't like me very much," he said. He lets the world know how much stuff they lose overboard each year - which is not much, he said. A few thousand containers out of about a million.

"That's a relatively low loss rate from an industrial point of view," he said. "From an environmental view, it can be catastrophic, considering one container can hold 5 million shopping bags, and one bag can choke a sea turtle to death."

For Ebbesmeyer, it's a scientific jackpot.

Since the famous rubber ducky spill, he has become a minor celebrity. His tale of the traveling ocean menagerie generated dozens of newspaper and magazine stories. He and partner Igraham have published what the plastic toys taught them about Pacific Ocean currents in respected academic journals. Before the Nike shoes and the plastic tub toys, oceanographers had to rely on a relatively small number of floating bottles and buoys to understand the ever-changing nature of the currents.

"Currents are like ghosts in the water," said Ebbesmeyer, "What you can see is what they carry."

With thousands of identifiable floating objects with a known starting point, the scientists were in data heaven.

"They really brought some light to mundane research on ocean currents," Ingraham said.

Over the years, a sort of symbiotic relationship developed between the media and the scientists: Without the scientists, people wouldn't know where and what to look for, and without the media, the scientists wouldn't learn when and where the toys come ashore.

"Reports of toys depend on media coverage because they carry no identification, Ebbesmeyer said. "Only the ducks are embossed with 'First Years Inc.'"

For a while, First Years Inc., the Massachusetts company that made the toys, offered a $100 reward for any found floating in the Atlantic. According to Ebbesmeyer, the toys were discontinued shortly after the 1992 spill, so those found in the ocean today are most likely from that same group.

The system isn't perfect. Sometimes newspapers will print pictures of some generic ducky, which can quickly generate hundreds of bogus ducky reports, Ebbesmeyer said.

"Ninety-five out of 100 beachcombers don't know the right duck. It's become a fable," he said.


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Ketchikan, Alaska