In 1992, a consignment of 'Friendly Floatees' was washed into the Pacific Ocean after twelve 40-foot (13.3 m) containers were lost overboard from a ship caught in a heavy storm. One of these contained 29,000 Friendly Floatees, a child's bath toy which came in a number of forms: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. At some point the container opened (possibly due to collision with other containers or the ship itself) and the Floatees were released. Although mounted in a plastic housing attached to a backing card, subsequent tests showed that the cardboard quickly degraded in sea water allowing the Floatees to escape. Unlike many bath toys, Friendly Floatees have no holes in them so they do not take on water.
Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, who were working on an ocean surface current model, began to track their progress. The mass release of 29,000 objects into the ocean at one time offered significant advantages over the standard method of releasing 500–1000 drift bottles. The recovery rate of objects from the Pacific Ocean is typically around 2%, so rather than the 10 to 20 recoveries typically seen with a drift bottle release, the two scientists expected numbers closer to 600. They were already tracking various other spills of flotsam, including 61,000 Nike running shoes which had been lost overboard in 1990.
Ten months after the incident the first Floatees began to wash up along the Alaskan coast. The first discovery consisted of ten toys found by a beachcomber near Sitka, Alaska on 16 November 1992, about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from their starting point. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham contacted beachcombers, coastal workers, and local residents to locate hundreds of the beached Floatees over a 530 mile (850 km) shoreline. Another beachcomber discovered twenty of the toys on 28 November, and in total 400 were found along the Eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska in the period up to August 1993. This represented a 1.4% recovery rate. The landfalls were logged in Ingraham's computer model OSCUR (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation), which uses measurements of air pressure from 1967 onwards to calculate the direction of and speed of wind across the oceans, and the consequent surface currents. Ingraham's model was built to help fisheries but it is also used to predict flotsam movements or the likely locations of those lost at sea.
Using the models they had developed, the oceanographers correctly predicted further landfalls of the toys in Washington state in 1996 and theorized that many of the remaining Floatees would have travelled to Alaska, westward to Japan, back to Alaska, and then drifted northwards through the Bering Strait and become trapped in the Arctic pack ice. Moving slowly with the ice across the Pole, they predicted it would take five or six years for the toys to reach the North Atlantic where the ice would thaw and release them. Between July and December 2003, The First Years Inc. offered a $100 US savings bond reward to anybody who recovered a Floatee in New England, Canada or Iceland. More of the toys were recovered in 2004 than in any of the preceding three years. However, still more of these toys are predicted to have headed eastward past Greenland and make landfall on the southwestern shores of the United Kingdom in 2007.
Bleached by sun and seawater, the ducks and beavers had faded to white, but the turtles and frogs had kept their original colours.
Two children's books have been written about the ducks, and the toys themselves have become collector's items, fetching prices as high as $1,000.
Quacking story eh?
Oh, and the giant rubber duck is an art piece by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman (see Anne Haight's blog about it here).