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How 29,000 Lost Rubber Ducks Helped Map the World's Oceans

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In January 1992, the Evergreen Ever Laurel set sail from the United Kingdom and headed

due east.

It carried the normal things cargo ships carry—textiles, electronics, food, and rubber ducks.

I have no idea what the animator is doing because I was of course referring to Hong

Kong, United Kingdom.

I’m also no fun at parties.

The ducks and other bath toys were manufactured in bordering China and then brought to Hong

Kong, one of the world’s largest ports, to be shipped to Tacoma, Washington and they

were partially successful at this because the ducks made it to here—just south of

the Alaskan Aleutian Islands—before the Ever Laurel encountered a storm.

In the huge waves, the massive cargo ship rolled 40 degrees to one side and, as the

old saying goes “rolling your ship 40 degrees to the side is bad,” so 12 containers fell

off into the icy waters below.

In one of those containers were those rubber ducks—29,000 of them.

Rubber ducks are made of rubber which is waterproof.

Now, pretty much every duck in the world has a hole in the bottom and most rubber ducks

do too, except for these.

It was just a choice made in manufacturing.

Because of that, these ducks would never take on water like normal rubber ducks and therefore

floated forever.

Wait… never mind that’s a stupid idea.

About a year after that North Pacific storm, something unremarkable happened—four rubber

ducks washed ashore in Sitka, Alaska, then more washed ashore in Japan, then more appeared

again in Alaska.

Small numbers were also found on beaches in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, and South

America.

Discoveries of the toys then slowed down after 1996.

Discoveries of new continents also slowed down after 1996 but that’s probably unrelated.

By this time scientists were keenly following the movements of these ducks.

You see, it’s fairly difficult to actually track the ocean’s currents.

You can drop a buoy, but a single buoy can’t verify the movements of all the twenty-six

quintillion gallons of water in the world’s oceans.

Scientists have created models that predict how currents flow but it’s difficult to

prove their predictions.

The normal method to measure current is just to release 1,000 or so bottles with messages

in them but with those only some make it to shore and only some of those get found and

only some of those get reported to those that released them.

In the Pacific, for example, only about 2% of all drift bottles ever released are found

and reported.

Just to summarize, then, a higher proportion of people are able to find and report a tiny

glass bottle from the world’s largest ocean than are able to find and follow my Twitter

account.

Those bottles may be salty from their float, but I’m saltier.

These ducks, however, were sweet ocean current trackers because there were just so many of

them.

No scientist could ethically dump 29,000 rubber ducks into the world’s oceans.

After all, humans already dump 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean each year—that’s

more than the weight of seven football fields combined.

Since this container just happened to release its cargo, however, they might as well use

the data.

An oceanographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer therefore started making predictions based off his ocean

current model of where and when the ducks would make landfall, and then, when they did,

his model was proven.

One of his boldest predictions was that ducks would make their way north, through the Arctic

Ice, and into the Atlantic.

This would explain why the ducks stopped making landfall in significant numbers after 1996

and, as it turned out, this did indeed happen with the first ducks in the Atlantic being

retrieved in Canada in 2003 then subsequently in New England, Iceland, and the UK.

Now, this current data was so valuable that there was a $100 reward offered to anyone

who found and reported the location of a duck verified from that original container.

Nowadays, however, these ducks are so popular that they have been purchased for up to $1,000

at auction.

From that one lost container, these ducks are now spread out all around the world still

floating across our oceans.

From time to time, they still wash ashore and if you happen to find one, you could become

the world’s next thousandaire.

If you do find one of these ducks, I know exactly how you should use your newfound fortune.

You should invest in yourself by signing up for Skillshare.

Skillshare has over 19,000 classes on anything from drawing birds to advanced Python programming.

If there’s a skill you want to learn, there’s a good chance that Skillshare will have a

class on it.

If you want to learn animation so you can make videos, like I know a lot of you want

to do, they even have a course on animation by the senior motion graphics designer of

Kurzgesagt.

The best news is that you won't have to spend too much of your rubber duck fortune because

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Skillshare Premium for 99 cents.