In 1992, a shipping container carrying 30,000 toy rubber ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs was lost at sea. These “Friendly Floatees” have been floating around for more than 20 years, teaching us a thing or two about oceanic currents – as well as the risks of shipping your goods internationally.
Known as the “Friendly Floatees”, these familiar plastic toys (which are dominated by the yellow rubber duck) have been tracked by oceanographers and other devotees for more than 20 years. Travelling in various patterns and washing up on the shores of Hawaii, the Gulf of Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Australia and the southwestern coastline of the United Kingdom, the floating ducks have given us a much deeper understanding of ocean currents, as well as the way pollution is wreaking havoc on our seas. Today, it’s not uncommon for these floatees, which have developed a cult following in their own right, to go for hundreds of Pounds on eBay.
Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer and floatee enthusiast, has a website that allows people to send in pictures of the plastic ducks, frogs and other toys that they find on beaches all over the world. Ebbesmeyer started his research shortly after the container was lost, and was able to locate the exact point at which the ship’s journey began. He has since tracked the rate of progress on the constantly circulating current, or “gyre”, which runs between Japan, south-east Alaska, Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands.
“We always knew that this gyre existed. But until the ducks came along, we didn’t know how long it took to complete a circuit,” he says. “It was like knowing that a planet is in the solar system but not being able to say how long it takes to orbit. Well, now we know exactly how long it takes: about three years.”
The toys have also been immortalised by author Donovan Hohn in his book, Moby-Duck. The book chronicles their journey, explains what the ducks have taught us about ocean currents, and lays bare the truth about the vast numbers of containers that fall off cargo ships, never reaching their destination. After all, this was not the first time a container has been lost at sea – in fact, there are estimates that as many as 10,000 containers are lost every year. Most of these incidents will never make the news, even though some of them involve the loss of expensive goods like furniture, tech items and even classic automobiles.
This obviously begs the question: What about household contents being shipped back home after a stint working and living overseas?
John Dunn from 1st Contact Shipping says the issue with containers falling off ships is more common than we might think, and is one of the reasons why fly-by-night operations should be avoided at all costs.
“If you consider how many containers are being transported across the sea at any given point, there’s always the distant chance that something could fall overboard. Unregulated shipping companies make this worse because they don’t offer you recourse if your belongings are lost at sea. No matter who you choose, make sure the company reimburses you if disaster strikes.”