Hey, Britain! Duck! It’s another armada!

Gordon Brown may face a situation Tony Blair didn’t imagine: An invasion of ducks.

Plastic cuck similar to floating armada members - Times of London photo

Plastic ducks. An armada of ducks.

Quack! Quack!

Or, maybe more appropriately, “Rubber Ducky, you’re the one!”

Geography fans everywhere are salivating. History fans already recognize the ducks bear no resemblance to the Spanish Armada, but may be interested anyway.

Plastic duck toys, survivors from an original lot of about 30,000 knocked off a container ship in the north Pacific in 1992, could be drifting onto the shores of the British Isles this summer. A reward is offered for the first one found and reported to a scientist who has tracked the ducks from their accident, through currents in four of the world’s five oceans, to landfalls in North America, South America, Southeast Asia, Indonesia — and through the Arctic.

The Times of London carried a story today:

For the past 15 years Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking nearly 30,000 plastic bath toys that were released into the Pacific Ocean when a container was washed off a cargo ship.

Some of the ducks, known as Friendly Floatees, are expected to reach Britain after a journey of nearly 17,000 miles, having crossed the Arctic Ocean frozen into pack ice, bobbed the length of Greenland and been carried down the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Mr Ebbesmeyer, who is based in Seattle, said yesterday that those that had not been trapped in circulating currents in the North Pacific, crushed by icebergs or blown ashore in Japan are bobbing across the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream.

Any beachcomber who finds one of the ducks will be able to claim a $100 (£50) reward from the toys’ American distributor, First Years Inc.

American genius, statesman and inventor Ben Franklin gathered data establishing the existence of the Gulf Stream on one of his voyages from America to Britain. Franklin wrote to one French sailing researcher:

‘Sundry circumstances relating to the Gulph Stream’

Vessels are sometimes retarded, and sometimes forwarded in their voyages, by currents at sea, which are often not perceived. About the year 1769 or 70, there was an application made by the board of customs at Boston, to the lords of the treasury in London, complaining that the packets between Falmouth and New York, were generally a fortnight longer in their passages, than merchant ships from London to Rhode-Island, and proposing that for the future they should be ordered to Rhode-Island instead of New-York. Being then concerned in the management of the American post office, I happened to be consulted on the occasion; and it appearing strange to me that there should be such a difference between two places scarce a day’s run asunder, especially when the merchant ships are generally deeper laden, and more weakly manned than the packets, and had from London the whole length of the river and channel to run before they left the land of England, while the packets had only to go from Falmouth, I could not but think the fact misunderstood or misrepresented.

There happened then to be in London, a Nantucket sea-captain of my acquaintance, to whom I communicated the affair. He told me he believed the fact might be true; but the difference was owing to this, that the Rhode-Island captains were acquainted with the gulf stream, which those of the English packets were not. We are well acquainted with that stream, says he, because in our pursuit of whales, which keep near the sides of it, but are not to be met with in it, we run down along the sides, and frequently cross it to change our side: and in crossing it have sometimes met and spoke with those packets, who were in the middle of it, and stemming it. We have informed them that stemming a current, that was against them to the value of three miles an hour; and advised them to cross it and get out of it; but they were too wise to be counselled [counseled] by simple American fishermen.

(Franklin’s letter is very long, covering several different issues of interest; this site of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration carries the complete letter, just waiting for an enterprising teacher of history, geography, integrated physics and chemistry, or environmental science, to develop “document-based” exercises and questions for students.)

Not even the inventive Dr. Franklin thought of releasing flocks of ducks to track the currents. This accident became a gold mine of data about the oceans, to Dr. Ebbesmeyer.

In Franklin’s tradition, Dr. Ebbesmeyer began tracking the ducks in 1992, and continues tracking them to this day. Surviving ducks are probably bleached white by the sun. They will be stamped “The First Years” on the starboard side.

Ebbesmeyer also tracks a spill of Nike shoes, from before the ducks were set loose, and any other significant spill of floating goods, including things like Legos. While we can smile about it, this is significant research, occupying Ebbesmeyer even into his retirement.

Students could have several entryways to knowledge opened for them with this story. Ocean currents can be tracked on maps — the only ocean not mentioned so far as I have found is the Southern Ocean, and frankly, if the ducks show up there, it suggests great tragedy for Antarctica, I believe. The story reveals how much garbage has been cast into the oceans, intentionally and accidentally. Students can get a feel for the Gulf Stream and its effects on weather, particularly from Ben Franklin’s letter.

And, I hope, students can get a good view of how meaningful and important science can be fun — is usually fun, in my experience. Sure, there is mathematics involved — but I can think of little more fun than trekking the globe, searching beaches on four or five different continents, looking for rubber ducks. This is work that your students can do, now.

Perhaps one of your students will find one of the ducks. That would be a real quack up!

[I have been unable to get Dr. Ebbesmeyers’s website to come up, http://www.beachcombers.org. A couple of old newsletters of the project are available through links at the NASA site listed above. Perhaps the site is down for mainenance, or overloaded today because of the story in the Times of London. Good luck in finding it.]


3 Responses to Hey, Britain! Duck! It’s another armada!

  1. Rock says:

    Where are the Ducks….


  2. […] Maps lets things drift – ducky! Strange Maps jumped onto the duck bandwagon I mentioned some weeks ago. Nice maps of the drift of the rubber ducks that fell off the ship in the Pacific in […]


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