An Accidental Spill of What Led to A 30 Year Oceanographic Study?

  • Rubber Ducks
  • Packing Peanuts
  • Radioactive Waste
  • Crude Oil

Answer:  Rubber Ducks

In 1992 several shipping containers were washed off a freighter enroute from Hong Kong to the United States. Among the containers washed off the ship were several packed with a delivery intended for The First Years, Inc.–tens of thousands of rubber ducks, frogs, and other bath toys.

Unlike most bath toys, the Friendly Floatee line of toys from The First Years had no drainage holes and were thus completely water tight–leaving them to float on indefinitely unless damaged. Two Seattle-based oceanographers–Curtis Ebbesmeyer, seen here, and James Ingraham–jumped on the odd event as the opportunity of a lifetime.

In normal oceanographic drift pattern studies, 500-1000 drift bottles are released. The spill of bath toys represented an unprecedented opportunity to track ocean currents as a whopping 28,000 of them had spilled out of the damaged cargo containers. Within two months, the bath toys were washing up on the shores of Alaska; curious beach combers and school children have been recovering them around the world ever since. The high recovery rate and the large distances the bath toys have traveled have played a critical role in both the refinement of theories surrounding ocean currents and movement as well as in raising awareness about environmental conditions and the interconnectivity of the world’s oceans.