On January 10, 1992, twelve 40-foot containers holding 28,000 plastic bath toys were washed overboard off a cargo ship into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and broke open. The floating toys, which were on their way from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington, included yellow duckies, blue turtles, red beavers, and green frogs that have since been caught up in the world’s ocean currents and continue turning up on the most improbable shores. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer, saw from the beginning how valuable the toys could be in tracing ocean currents, and correctly predicted their trip through the Northwest Passage.
The Friendly Floatees, as they became known, made their first landfall in mid-November of 1993, when the counter-clockwise Subpolar Gyre started dumping the toys on Alaskan shores. It took the ducks about three years to drift full circle on the Gyre. They turned up all over the Pacific: Japan, Hawaii, North America, and Australia.
As Ebbesmeyer predicted, some of the toys escaped the Gyre to flow North through the Bering Strait into the Arctic. Between 1995 and 2000 they slowly drifted eastward, frozen in the arctic ice, at a rate of 1 mile per day. Since 2000, the ducks started reaching the North Atlantic, being sighted from the shores of Maine to Massachusetts. In 2001, the Floatees reached the site where the Titanic sank. In 2003, the plastic toys reached the shores of the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland.
If you spot one of these plastic toys on a beach--its colors probably faded, with the imprint "The Early Years" on it--then you’ve found one member of the rubber armada that set sail 17 years ago. At some point, the scientific team that tracked their progress offered $100 apiece for the toys, provided you could tell them when and where you’d found them. The offer was valid only from July through to December 2003, and only for Friendly Floatees found in New England, Canada, or Iceland. However, Friendly Floatees have become so famous that they can fetch up to $1,000 at auction.
Hat tip to Strange Maps and Wikipedia.