Ducks all at sea

When tens of thou­sands of bath toys were lost over­board, a re­mark­able chase be­gan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence Not So Ski And Easy On The Mat - DONO­VAN HOHN

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.

TOM JELLETT

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