Why oceanographers love plastic duckies

These days, a huge number of plastic and rubber items manufactured in Asia are shipped in containers to markets and customers in North America. Often the containers are stacked on the decks of ships, rather than stowed down in the hold. In rough weather in the North Pacific, containers have been known to tear loose and be washed overboard.

In 1990, a container vessel lost five containers overboard in a storm. Four of them apparently tore open in the process, releasing 61,000 Nike running shoes into the Pacific Ocean. These shoes float, and several months later, hundreds of them began to wash ashore along the coast of North America from Alaska to Oregon. Beachcombers gathered them up and arranged swap meets to match left and right shoes, then use or sell the pairs.

Oceanographers were delighted: here was a unique chance to plot ocean currents and surface drift on scale that could never have been done on a scientific budget. Scientists tapped into the information network of beachcombers, and the points of landfall of at least1600 Nike shoes were recorded exactly. This is about the same rate of recovery as oceanographers get from their drift bottles, but no oceanographer can afford to drop 61,280 drift bottles in one place at one time! By the time the data were plotted, the drift of the North Pacific was recorded in finer detail than ever. Years later, far-floating Nike shoes from the spill are still being recovered as far away as Hawaii, because the surviving floaters were turned southward into the main Pacific clockwise circulation.

It was with even greater delight that oceanographers learned of the fate of 29,000 Chinese plastic bath toys during their voyage from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. In a severe storm on January 10, 1992, twelve containers were washed overboard. One of them tore open, and thousands of blue plastic turtles, yellow plastic duckies, red plastic beavers, and green plastic frogs began their great adventure - fortunately these animals are all competent swimmers.

Ten months later, the first waves of plastic toys hit the beaches of Sitka, Alaska. Advertisements in newspapers and letters to lighthouse keepers brought in reports of landings, all of them on the Alaskan coast. This time, the higher-floating plastic toys were more affected by the wind than the low-floating Nikes, and their main trajectory took them north, out of the gyre circulation. Those that did not reach shore quickly were swept northeast, and by the winter of 1993-94, the survivors would have been frozen into sea ice in the Bering Sea. Some may now be heading back into the North Pacific, others may be on their way round the Arctic Ocean, eastward along the north coast of Siberia, heading for the North Atlantic.

Sounds like a children's story, but it's all true!

UPDATE 1999. They don't make Nikes or plastic duckies in Europe, but they do make Lego: AND they ship it out by sea. As you read this, some of 5 million pieces of Lego that were dumped in the Atlantic Ocean are heading for beaches, where beachcombers and oceanographers can find them. See this Web page.

See also Curtis Ebbesmeyer's Web page for beachcombers

Ebbesmeyer, C. C., and W. J. Ingraham. 1992. Shoe spill in the North Pacific. Eos 73: 361 ff.
Ebbesmeyer, C. C., and W. J. Ingraham. 1994. Pacific toy spill fuels ocean current pathways research. Eos 75: 425 ff.

Last updated by RC, October 6, 1999.

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