Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Toy ducks make epic journey

A ship load of rubber ducks dumped at sea are now yielding data to scientists


The last survivors of an armada of thousands of plastic ducks and other toy animals lost at sea 11 years ago are expected soon to reach British shores, and give occeanographers a valuable lesson in the way the planet works.

The epic journey of 29,000 toy ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs began when their container fell from a cargo ship somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in January 1992.

But the animals were not entirely lost at sea.

Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been using a powerful computer program in the northwestern US city of Seattle to model the action of the elements on the ducks.

According to Ebbesmeyer and his computer, the toy animals are now due to be washed up on Britain's beaches, having completed an epic journey up the western US coast and through the ice floes of the Arctic into the Atlantic Ocean.

Soon after their plunge into the oceans, six ducks were found in the US state of Alaska, next to Canada's northwestern corner. But of the thousands that continued their journey, many were not so lucky.

Sunk to a watery grave, trapped for eternity in Arctic ice floes or swallowed whole by greedy fish, the planet's northern seas are an inhospitable and unpredictable environment for innocent toys intended for the world's bathtubs.

But not so unpredictable for Ebbesmeyer. He says that if his calculations prove correct, many of the toys are due to be washed up in Iceland or the British Isles.

British oceanographer Roger Proctor said that his colleague from across the Atlantic may just be right.

"This is a new phenomenon as a result of the melting of the ice," Proctor told Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"Things from the Pacific are appearing in the Labrador Sea coming round the top of Canada through the northwest passage."

Ebbesmeyer said that the ducks could have been grafted on to the ice, which travels at around just under 2km a day.

He is anxiously waiting for news of the ducks' arrival, which would prove the validity of his model, which in turn would be of huge benefit to those trying to monitor the movement of the oceans.

James Ingraham is a colleague of Ebbesmeyer's, and he uses the plastic toy data to resolve fishery problems. The top layer of seawater carries drifting eggs and larvae of spawning fish, and essential information for the management of global fish stocks.

"It's kind of a sideline for me to do the debris drift, but it's been more fun," he said.

And plastic toys are not the only useful bits of debris floating around the globe.

Ebbesmeyer also tracks 80,000 pairs of Nike trainers, five million lost pieces of Lego and 34,000 hockey gloves, all lost when containers fell from tranport ships.

The American scientist decided to start tracking the collatoral damage of sea transport in 1990, when another of his colleagues plucked a message in a bottle from the seas off western Canada.

The bottle had been thrown into the sea in the summer of 1980 from the Quemoy and Matsu islands off the Chinese coast by Taiwanese human rights activists.

They threw several thousand of the bottles into the sea, expecting them to be washed up on mainland China.

Inside the rice wine bottle found off Canada were six scraps of paper, inscribed with Chinese characters. Among them, a note calling for the liberation of the most famous Chinese dissident of the time, Wei Jingsheng.

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