The Hebrides are a group of islands off the coast of Scotland, famous for their historic castles and Celtic ruins. In 2003, a magistrate on holiday was greeted by a sight that no visitor to the Hebrides had ever seen before: a plastic toy frog washing on shore, completing an 11 year journey across the world’s oceans.
Four years later, off the northern coasts of France, beachgoers saw something similar. Fleets of rubber ducks storming France’s beaches. The length of time these rubber ducks spent navigating the Earth’s waters? 17 years.
These toy frogs and rubber ducks were originally part of a same 1992 shipment, sailing the Pacific Ocean to North America, when Ever Laurel, the cargo ship carrying them, hit the storm. For hours, high waves were toying with a mighty freighter, until eventually twelve containers came loose, one of which contained 29 thousand bath toys, and got swept overboard.
These toys became a part of the container graveyard, which continues to receive an average of 350 new containers that are lost annually worldwide, according to the World Shipping Council. In fact, shipments lost at sea washing up on a distant shore are a relatively common sight. Everything from Doritos (still sealed in bags and edible) to Nikes have washed up on shores across the world, to be picked up by enterprising beach combers.
So what sets these ducks apart from the other thousands of crates littering the ocean’s floor? They “escaped” the container and became a part of a scientific experiment, whose goal was to map out the ocean’s currents.
As soon as the loss of toys was announced, an oceanographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer began tracking their movements to see where they would end up. “Friendly Floatees,” as they became known, first showed up in Sitka, Alaska, a number of them frozen in ice. Sometime later more were spotted in Maine, South America as well as Australia. In August of 2013 more toys were spotted and logged, and Ebbesmeyer still believes there are hundreds more out there, just waiting to be discovered.
Ebbesmeyer has spent the last 23 years studying the movements of these toys in order to study the ocean’s conveyor belt. “It’s a strange thing to be living on a planet and not know what’s in 70% of it,” says Ebbesmeyer.
As it turns out, we have better maps of Mars than we do of the oceans. Over the decades of oceanography and marine biology, various scientists combed the oceans and found sunken cities and ancient artifacts. Yet in spite of all discoveries, they estimate that two thirds of all marine life is yet to be identified. The fact is that ocean is something scientists know surprisingly little about, and we can still learn a lot about the ocean’s conveyor belt, even when a study is a result of an accident.
Ebbesmeyer’s ducks teach us a lot about the ocean’s surface, how the Earth’s wind patterns interact with the currents and the waves. But there’s still much beneath the surface we don’t know about, and less than 3% of Ebbesmeyer’s findings have been reported.
So next time you’re at the beach, keep your eyes peeled for anything that may have washed up. You might inadvertently become part of the most notable study ever done on the ocean’s currents.