Back in the Day: Rubber Ducks as Remote Sensors

Each year, container ships lose either 1,000 (World Shipping Council) or 10,000 (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) containers of goods at sea, depending on who is doing the counting. An ocean container is roughly 40 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet high. In 1992, a ship that departed from Hong Kong lost a container overboard filled with 29,000 bathtub toys, including thousands of iconic yellow rubber ducks. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer decided to track them, and they became known as the “friendly floatees.”

Travel of the Friendly Floatees.  NordNordWest [ GFDL  or  CC BY-SA 3.0 ],  via Wikimedia Commons

Travel of the Friendly Floatees. NordNordWest [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Mother Nature News reported:

Since that fabled day in 1992 when they were unceremoniously abandoned at sea, the yellow ducks have bobbed halfway around the world. Some have washed up on the shores of Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia and the Pacific Northwest; others have been found frozen in Arctic ice. Still others have somehow made their way as far as Scotland and Newfoundland, in the Atlantic.

The story of the rubber ducks gone ’round the world is legendary amongst oceanographers. Their journey helped form our knowledge of the North Pacific Gyre, the location of the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage PatchThe Independent interviewed Ebbesmeyer in 2011:

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer and enthusiastic beachcomber who lives in Seattle, used records held by First Years Inc to trace the ship they had been carried on. By interviewing its captain, he was able to locate the exact point at which their journey began. He was able to track their 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.”


Understanding the 11 major gyres that move water around the world’s oceans is thought to be highly important, says Mr Ebbesmeyer, who has also tracked lost shipments of 51,000 Nike shoes. It will help climatologists to predict the effects of climate change on the marine environment.

“Floatees” are a preoccupation of many beachcombers, who alert Mr. Ebbesmeyer of  their discoveries via his website Beachcombers Alert. Often the origin of the ship that lost them can be pinpointed, and its contents tracked.