Posted by: waterworks | April 16, 2008

28. Weird water stories (case of the rubber ducks)

Sixteen years after they first leapt overboard into the Pacific Ocean, a flotilla of small plastic ducks (along with some beavers and turtles) is heading for Britain’s beaches.  29,000 plastic bath toys were released when their container was washed off a Chinese cargo ship in 1992, subsequently providing an unparalled data set for researchers with an interest in ocean circulation.  Curtis Ebbesmeyer (the severed feet consultant) is one such scientist who has been tracking the ducks.  Their movement has been inputted by Ebbesmeyer into a computer model called OSCUR (Ocean Surface Current Simulator).  Developed by James Ingraham, OSCUR uses air pressure measurements as a means of calculating the direction and speed of wind across the oceans – and consequent surface currents.



After some ducks first washed up in 1993 near Sitka, Alaska – a full ten months after their great escape, – the scientists used OSCUR to correctly predict that the remainder would follow the Sub-polar and 6,800 mile-long Subtropical Gyres of the North Pacific Ocean.  The Gyre currents did indeed induce a mass westward flocking of tiny plastic water fowl to Japan.  From there, they promptly doubled-back to Alaska, thereby completing an approximately oval circuit (one that roughly marks the extent of the filthy Pacific Garbage Patch).  Upon their return to Alaska (by now it was the end of the 1990s), many of the ducks haplessly drifted northwards, decelerating into the Bering Strait to become trapped in slow-moving pack ice.  Ebbesmeyer forecast the toys patiently sitting on their frozen tails for five or six loooooooong years before next reaching the North Atlantic, where warmer waters would finally thaw the ice and bring liberation; further adventures might then reasonably be expected to take place in Canada, Greenland and New England – ending with the Gulf Stream ushering a warm north-westerly paddle towards the British Isles.  All of this has now come to pass, exactly as Ebbesmeyer said.  Expect the ducks to turn up on British beaches any day now – by which point, the hardly little critters will have travelled 17,000 miles.




This graphic shows the Pacific orbital path taken by the ducks.



  1. […] body of oceanographic work (he is well-regarded for his rubber duck studies) is definitely worth a […]

  2. I have about 15 ducks w/#’s on some and am trying to find out if they r on anybody’s radar??
    When ocean clean up happens in Sept. will give them up and I guess they will be lost.l
    Write soon if anyone is interested

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