Ducks all at sea
When tens of thousands of bath toys were lost overboard, a remarkable chase began
THE classified ads in the July 14, 1993, edition of the Daily Sitka Sentinel do not make for exciting reading, though they do convey something of what summertime in Alaska’s maritime provinces is like.
That week, the Tenakee Tavern, ‘‘in Tenakee’’, was accepting applications ‘ ‘ for cheerful bartenders’’. The Baranof Berry Patch was buying berries: ‘ ‘ huckleberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries’’. The National Marine Fisheries Service hereby gave notice that the winners of the 1992 Sablefish Tag Recovery Drawing, an annual event held to encourage the reporting of tagged sablefish, would be selected at 1pm on July 19 at the Auke Bay Laboratory.
Then, under the catch-all heading of Announcements, between Business Services and Boats for Sale, an unusual listing appeared. ‘‘Anyone who has found plastic toy animals on beaches in Southeast please call the Sentinel . . .’’
The author of the ad was Eben Punderson, then a high-school English teacher who moonlighted as a journalist, now a lawyer in rural Vermont. On Thanksgiving Day 1992, a party of beachcombers strolling along Chichagof Island had discovered several dozen hollow plastic animals amid the usual wrack of bottle caps, fishing tackle and driftwood deposited at the tide line by a recent storm.
After 10 months at sea, the ducks had whitened and the beavers had yellowed, but the frogs were still green as ever and the turtles still blue.
Now that the summer had returned, beachcombers were out in force and on the windward side of Chichagof, as on other islands in the vicinity of Sitka, they found toys, hundreds of them — frogs half-buried under pebbles, beavers poised atop driftwood, turtles tangled in derelict fishing nets, ducks blown past the tide line into the purple fireweed.
Beachcombing in the Alaskan wilderness had suddenly come to resemble an Easter-egg hunt.
Laurie Lee of South Baranof Island filled an unused skiff with the hoard of toys she scavenged. Signe Wilson filled a hot tub. Betsy Knudson had so many to spare, she started giving them to her dog. It appeared that even the wild animals of Sitka Sound were collecting them: one toy had been plucked from a river otter’s nest. On a beachcombing excursion with friends, Mary Stensvold gathered 40 of the animals.
Word of the invasion spread. Dozens of correspondents answered the Daily Sitka Sentinel’s ad. Toys had been found as far north as Kayak Island, as far south as Coronation Island, a range extending hundreds of miles. Where had they come from?
Punderson was pretty sure he knew. Three years earlier, in May 1990, an eastbound freighter, Hansa Carrier, had collided with a storm 800km south of the Alaskan peninsula. Several containers had gone overboard, including a shipment of 80,000 Nike sports shoes. Five months later, sneakers began washing up along Vancouver Island.
The story had received national attention after a pair of oceanographers in Seattle — James Ingraham of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a scientist with a private consulting firm that assessed the environmental risks and impacts of engineering projects — turned the sneaker spill into an accidental oceanographic experiment.
By feeding co-ordinates collected from beachcombers into NOAA’s Ocean Surface Current Simulator, a computer modelling system built from a century’s worth of US Navy weather data, Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham had reconstructed the drift routes of about 200 shoes.
In the process, the basement of Ebbesmeyer’s bungalow had become the central intelligence agency of what would eventually grow into a global network of coastal informants. If anyone knew anything about the plague of plastic animals, it would be Ebbesmeyer, but when the Daily Sitka Sentinel’s moonlighting reporter contacted him in the summer of 1993, it was the first the oceanographer had heard of the toys.
Punderson still had another lead. The ducks — and for some reason only the ducks — had been embossed with the logo of their manufacturer, The First Years. A local toy store was unable to find the logo in its merchandise catalogues, but the director of the Sheldon Jackson College library traced the brand back to its parent company, Kiddie Products, based in Avon, Massachusetts.
Punderson spoke to the company’s marketing manager, who somewhat reluctantly confirmed the reporter’s speculations. Yes, indeed, a shipment of Floatees had been lost at sea.
‘‘Solved: mystery of the wandering bathtub toys’’ ran the lead headline in the Daily Sitka Sentinel’s Weekend section a month after Punderson’s ad first appeared. And that is where the story should have ended as an entertaining anecdote in the back pages of a provincial newspaper.
But then something unexpected happened. The story kept going, in part because Ebbesmeyer and his beachcombers joined the hunt, in part because the toys themselves kept going. Years later, new specimens and new mysteries were still turning up.
In autumn 1993, Floatees suddenly began sprinkling the shores of Shemya, a tiny Aleutian island that lies about 2400km closer to Siberia than to Sitka, not far from the site of the spill.
In 1995, beachcombers in Washington State found a blue turtle and a sun-bleached duck. Dean and Tyler Orbison, a fatherand-son beachcombing team who annually scour uninhabited islands along the Alaskan coast, added more toys to their growing collection every summer: dozens in 1992, three in 1993 and 25 in 1994; in 1995 they found none.
The slump continued in 1996, and the Orbisons assumed they’d seen the last of the plastic animals. Then, in 1997, the toys suddenly returned in large numbers.
Thousands more were yet to be accounted for. Where had they gone? Into the Arctic? Around the globe? Were they still out there, travelling the currents of the North Pacific? Or did they lie buried under wrack and sand along Alaska’s wild, sparsely populated shores? Or, succumbing to freezing temperatures, the endless battering of the waves and prolonged exposure to the sun, had they cracked, filled with water, gone under? All 28,800 toys had emerged from that sinking container into the same acre of water.
Each member of the four species was all but identical to the others — each duck was just as light as the other ducks, each frog as thick as the other frogs, each beaver as aerodynamic as the next. And yet one turtle had ended up in Wilson’s hot tub, another in the j aws of Knudson’s labrador, another in an otter’s nest, while a fourth had floated almost all the way to Russia, and a fifth travelled south of Puget Sound.
Why? What tangled calculus of causes and effects could explain or predict such disparate fates?
There were still other reasons why the story of the toys kept going, reasons that had nothing to do with oceanography and everything to do with the human imagination. In making sense of chaotic data, in following a slightly tangled thread of narrative to its source, Punderson had set the plastic animals adrift all over again, not upon the waters of the North Pacific but upon currents of information.
The Associated Press picked up the Daily Sitka Sentinel’s story and, far more swiftly than the ocean currents, carried the castaway toys around the globe.
They swirled through the sewers of the internet and bobbed up in such exotic lagoons as a newsletter for the collectors of duck-themed stamps, an oceanography textbook for undergraduates, and a trade magazine for the builders of swimming pools.
By the time they drifted into my imagination late one winter night several years ago, the plastic animals that had fallen into the Pacific in 1992 were scarcely recognisable. The plastic had turned into rubber; the beavers, frogs, and turtles had all turned into ducks.
The day Punderson published that unusual ad, a metamorphosis had begun, the metamorphosis of happenstance into narrative, and narrative into the Fable of the Rubber Ducks Lost at Sea. This is an edited extract from Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (Scribe, $35), published this month.