I’ve spent the past two installments of this series–Part I, about the grisly severed feet that have been washing up on Pacific shores since 2007, and Part II, about the hideous patch of floating plastic in the middle of the Pacific–talking about manmade artifacts floating the world’s oceans that are generally bad. Especially after the downer of the last article I’d like to end this series on a higher note, and talk about some flotsam that, while deposited into the ocean by accident, surprisingly proved to be a boon to oceanographic science. The “Friendly Floatees,” as they’re called, are probably the most famous rubber duckies in the history of toys, and their odyssey is a fascinating story of science and serendipity.

In January 1992, a cargo ship called the Ever Laurel departed Hong Kong bound for Tacoma, Washington. On board were numerous cargo containers filled with cheap toys of the kind manufactured in Hong Kong and shipped all over the world. On January 10, the Ever Laurel was caught in a severe storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Three of the cargo containers broke loose and were washed off the ship, sinking into the far depths of the Pacific. One container, however, broke open as it fell off the deck, spilling its contents into the stormy water. The particular type of toy in this container was manufactured by The First Years, Inc. They were bath toys, intended for babies, known as Friendly Floatees. In this sense they were literally designed to be flotsam, and as babies are among the most destructive forces known to mankind, they were also designed to be well-nigh indestructible. Friendly Floatees came in several forms, including beavers, frogs, and of course the age-old favorite, the plain old-fashioned rubber duck.


Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer poses with some of the real-life Friendly Floatees that helped him track and predict ocean currents.

Although the toys were fully packaged when they were put into the container–each one in a blister pack attached to a cardboard backing–after only a few days in the rough Pacific waves the cardboard, being biodegradable, turned to mush and washed away. (The plastic of the blister packs probably became very tiny nurdles–see the previous entry for how this occurs). Thus, each bath toy was released onto the ocean, and some of them eventually turned white due to bleaching from the sun and waves. Friendly Floatees were different than other bath toys in that they had no apertures at all, thus not allowing water in. Now an armada of over 28,000 unsinkable bath toys was bobbing around on the Pacific.

Oceanographers immediately recognized the scientific potential in the Floatees spill. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who specialized in studying ocean currents, was particularly interested in the toys, because where they washed up on various shores would validate–or disprove–models he and colleagues had developed about how ocean currents worked. In November 1992, the first Friendly Floatee appeared on a beach in Sitka, Alaska. Over the next few months various other Floatees were found on shores of the North Pacific. They traveled there on currents whose movements Ebbesmeyer correctly predicted. Previous to the Floatees release, researchers’ data on ocean currents was incomplete due to the hit-or-miss nature of research buoys they sent out which were rarely recovered. The “recovery rate” of the Floatees bath toys was considerably higher than that for specific research buoys. Ultimately Ebbesmeyer was offering a $100 savings bond to anyone who found a genuine Friendly Floatee in specific parts of the world where he predicted they would eventually end up.

To say that these toys are the most well-traveled rubber ducks in history is an understatement. After taking 10 months to float 2,000 miles northward to the Gulf of Alaska, the currents of the North Pacific took the Floatees on an even longer voyage to the coast of Alaska, where they arrived in 1996, four years after the accident. Then, after another round-trip to Japan across the North Pacific, Ebbesmeyer predicted the toys would float up through the Bering Strait and become embedded in Arctic pack ice. After an agonizingly slow journey across the Arctic Ocean, the toys reappeared in the Atlantic no earlier than the year 2000. In 2003 they started to fan out through the Atlantic, and were predicted to arrive in New England and the shores of the UK sometime in 2007. Overall, the Friendly Floatees have traveled over 17,000 miles–nearly the entire circumference of the Earth–and what’s amazing is that there are undoubtedly some of them still out there.

floatees map

This map shows the amazing 15-year voyage of the Friendly Floatees, the scientifically-approved rubber ducks that just won’t die.

The Floatees are not the only items of flotsam that have been tracked by oceanographers, but they’re by far the most famous. Curtis Ebbesmeyer has now written several academic papers and a few books about the epic voyage of the toys, and the curious story is of obvious special interest to children. Having small, unsinkable and easily recognizable objects like the Friendly Floatees in the public eye has undoubtedly advanced the science of oceanography greatly. Better understanding the movement of ocean currents is of immense value to many disciplines of environmental science, including climate change. As climate change is undoubtedly the most serious problem currently facing the world, these toys, originally intended to wind up in suburbanites’ bathtubs, have instead found an amazing destiny far in excess of anything their creators could have intended.

Sometimes the world can be changed by fortunate accidents. The case of the Friendly Floatees proves that. While it’s sobering to realize how much human-created debris there really is out there on the world’s oceans–most of it classifiable as pollution–the odyssey of these objects does have the potential to teach us a lot about our world. I still think about that man’s dress shirt that I saw floating in the North Atlantic that day on the Queen Mary 2. Flotsam, troublesome though it is, can be pretty amazing stuff.

I hope you enjoyed this series! For those of you who were expecting something about the heavy metal band Flotsam & Jetsam, I won’t disappoint. Here is a vintage performance of the band, their song “Desecrator” in a rare performance from 1985, when future Metallica bassist Jason Newsted was still in the band.

The map of the Floatees’ journey is by Wikimedia Commons user NordNordWest and is used under GNU Free Documentation License. The photo of Curtis Ebbesmeyer is public domain.