Duck Race

Post Register August 8, 2013


I’ve bought my “six-quack” of plastic ducks, now I am waiting to see if I win the annual duck race on Saturday. I am reminded of another time when plastic ducks created a sensation. In 1992, on a stormy January night in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, a global duck race started and even today all the toys have not been recovered.

On that night, the cargo ship, APL China, inbound to Tacoma, Washington from Hong Kong, was battered by a typhoon. Tossed about like a toy in the huge waves, the APL China lost 407 shipping containers into the ocean. Others were crushed on deck as stacks of loaded containers collapsed in the storm. Three containers spewed out a total of 28,900 plastic yellow ducks, along with some red beavers, blue turtles, and green frogs, all stamped with the company name, The First Years. They have been floating on the world’s oceans and washing up on beaches ever since.

Even though they added to the already burgeoning trash heap the oceans have become, oceanographers were ecstatic about this particular entourage of plastic toys. As they began washing ashore around the world, they revealed secrets about ocean currents that had baffled scientists for years.

Two-thirds floated south, decorating the beaches of Australia, Indonesia, and South America three months later. Other ducks drifted north taking ten months to reach the shores of Alaska. Still others were caught in the North Atlantic Gyre—a vortex of counterclockwise currents that spin between Alaska and Japan. Scientists have known about the gyre, but until the ducks showed up, they didn’t know how long it took for one complete revolution. Three years later the ducks completed the circuit and floated back past the point where they were so unceremoniously dumped into the ocean. The scientists had their answer because of bathtub toys. Some 2,000 of these ducks are still trapped in that huge endless circle today.

However, others escaped the pull of the gyre and drifted north through the Bering Strait and into the Arctic Ocean. Some were trapped in Arctic ice, but by 2000, others had made their way past Greenland and were washing up on the beaches of the northeastern coast of the United States and Canada.

That is an incredible journey for a floating toy that wouldn’t last a week in the hands of a toddler. However, it doesn’t end there. The toys, now mostly bleached white by years in the sun, have slowly found their way to Great Britain, traveling over 17,000 miles in the process. There are still plastic toys from this spill washing ashore today.

Saturday’s race will raise some needed funds and will provide entertainment and the chance for a prize. The 21 year “duck race” started by the unfortunate APL China served a different function. Besides outlining ocean currents, it has proven to the world that the trash we cast into landfills, roadsides, rivers, or even huge oceans, persists long after we have forgotten about it, and can show up in places we’d never expect.