FRIENDLY FLOATEES: HOW RUBBER DUCKS HELPED TO SHAPE OCEAN SCIENCE
Since its invention in 1907, plastic has been moulded into durable items ranging from storage units to medical equipment, fulfilling an integral role in many industries. Unfortunately, its greatest strength was to become its greatest downfall. The hard-waring nature of plastic has meant mass-produced items which age impeccably have flooded the environment, spreading through the ocean to some of the planet’s most remote locations. Perhaps one of the most vibrant examples of the longevity of seemingly innocuous plastic items is that of the Friendly Floatees.
On the 10th of January 1992, a freighter en route from China to Seattle entered into a storm causing twelve 40-foot shipping containers to fall into the sea. The cargo lost included a consignment of 29,000 bath toys. The toys were packaged in groups of four, each containing a yellow duck, a red otter, a green frog and a blue turtle, and as the cardboard packaging was eroded by sea water the plastic characters were released into the ocean. Unlike many bath toys the Friendly Floatees didn’t have holes so were unable to take on water. This meant they were, and still are, capable of drifting across the globe indefinitely.
The case of the Friendly Floatees became the focus of an eye-opening research project by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. He gathered data based on reports from beachcombers to map the progress of their journey. The study offered a unique opportunity for ocean scientists, who could usually only gather such data from the release drift bottles in numbers no greater than 1000. Recovering drift items from the Pacific has an average recovery rate of about 2%, meaning they could expect approximately 600 data points from the release of the Friendly Floatees. This was a far greater yield compared to the usual 10 - 20 data points achieved with drift bottles. These bath toys were not the only ‘spillage’ being studied at the time, with another notable example being 61,000 Nike running shoes which went overboard in 1990.
The first of the Floatees began to appear in November of 1992 when ten toys washed up along the Alaskan Coast, 2,000 miles from their point of origin. Over the next year, a further 400 toys would wash up along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska. The Friendly Floatees findings were entered into OSCUR (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation), a computer model created by Jim Ingraham, which uses measurements of air pressure to calculate the direction and speed of ocean wind currents.
Using this model, oceanographers correctly predicted the arrival of the Friendly Floatees in Washington state in 1996. The remaining toys then floated toward Japan and back to Alaska before drifting towards the Baerin Strait and getting trapped in the Arctic ice. It was theorised that it would take 6 years for the toys to move across the Pole before thawing and being released back into the ocean. By 2007, 15 years and 17,000 miles later, a small number of the Floatees reached the south-western shores of the UK and it’s believed to this day there are still several thousand drifting at sea.
I was born in 1992 and to consider that these bath toys have survived at sea for as long as I’ve been alive is as troubling as it is impressive. In 2017, a report showed that the average number of shipping containers lost to the ocean was down from the estimate for 2014. While a promising trend, this still represented approximately 1,390 shipping containers entering the ocean, the contents of which (as the Friendly Floatees have taught us) could still be around over a decade from now.
Freighters play a vital role in the world economy and while we can’t remove the risk of shipping container loss entirely we can all learn from catastrophic events such as these. Commercial items, including toys, are produced in response to demand. While it may be tempting to keep renewing children’s toys, consider purchasing heirloom pieces which will delight your children for years to come and can be passed down through generations.
This attitude extends to the current movement towards reducing fast fashion. As the 1990 Nike spillage demonstrates, fashion items are also imported overseas. So, before heading to the shops, consider taking a deeper dive into your wardrobe to see if you can find any forgotten gems. Organise university swap shops for pieces that no longer fit, or look to apps such as Depop and Vinted so you can trade your unwanted garms for exciting second-hand finds.
Buying British is another way you can help by reducing the demand for imported products whilst also helping to support local businesses. This extends to your groceries, so try challenging yourself to cook using items from the seasonal produce section of your local supermarket. If yours doesn’t have one, you can find a guide to what’s in season here.
We can also strive on an individual level to prevent durable plastics from entering the ocean. Be mindful of picnicware and toys when visiting beaches and rivers. Take a reusable bag to keep toys together and consider long-lasting picnicware which comes in a convenient carry case. While you’re down there, help remove what litter you can to prevent it from being swept back out to sea when the tide comes in. And don’t forget, keep an eye out for Friendly Floatees.
This article was written by Stay Wild Swim family member Rachael; a writer, zoologist and wildlife photographer living in London. Rachael has loved marine life since she wore out her first copy of The Blue Planet in 2002, and wants to protect the ocean so future generations can marvel at creatures as insane as the sarcastic fringehead.