Beachcombing Science from Bath Toys
by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer
Overview: This is a true story how bath toys fell off a container ship and washed up on beaches around the world. Using
a world map, identify, locate, and record the dates and places where the toys were found. Write a hypothesis about how
the rubber toys made their way to the various locations identified.
Pre Reading Questions:
I. DEFINE: 1) Derelict -____________________________________________________________________
4) gyre- _____________________________________________________________________
6) Write a hypothesis about how the rubber toys made their way to various beaches
around the world.
II. a) Using the world map find the information in the story about where the rubber bath toys were found.
b) Locate the places on the map and record them along with the dates that the toys were found.
An atlas or the Internet can be used to help locate any places that are unfamiliar.
c) Color Code Areas and Plot Names and Dates on the Map on the back.
III. How did rubber bath toys, lost overboard in the Pacific, travel to beaches many miles away? (Refine your
hypothesis at each step and use key vocabulary words and concepts from the Reading.
IV. Conclusion summary:Beachcombing Science from Bath Toys
by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer
Twelve years and counting — the saga of the tots’
tub toys continues. On January 10, 1992, 28,800 turtles,
ducks, beavers and frogs packed in a cargo container —
called Floatees by the manufacturer — splashed into the
mid-Pacific, where the 45th parallel intersects the
International Date Line (44.7°N, 178.1°E).During AugustSeptember, 1992, after 2,200 miles adrift, hundreds
beached near Sitka, Alaska. Twelve years later, in 2004,
beachcombers were still finding the bath-time critters.
At Sitka’s second annual beachcomber fair held on
25 July 2004, Dean Orbison and son Tyler Orbison, 22, exhibited a hamper full of
111 toys they’d beachcombed nearby Sitka during 1993-2004 The basket held
comparable numbers: 18% turtles(blue), 35% ducks (yellow), 26% beavers(red), and
21% frogs. During years at sea, the ducks and beavers faded to white while the
turtles and frogs remained original blue and green, respectively. Animal bites and the
surf smashing them against rocks had ruptured many. Through the years, Dean
patiently recorded the date and location where they found ninety of the fist-sized toys
This astonishing record reveals peak recoveries in five years with intervening gaps of
2, 4, 3, and 3 years, i.e., 1992–1994–1998–2001–2004. Each year, Dean and Tyler
conducted comparable beachcombing effort so the peaks in the time line are not the
result of differing times spent along the shore. The first peak occurred before the
Orbisons began recording, but a year in which other beachcombers reported hundreds.
We may safely assume an initial peak in 1992, the year the playthings first invaded
Jim Ingraham’s computer simulation of ocean surface currents known as OSCURS
(Ocean Surface CURrent Simulator), provides an understanding of the peaks in toy
recoveries. OSCURS applies because its trajectories around the North Pacific
Subpolar and Subtropical gyres have compared well with those of many drifters,
including numerous satellite-tracked buoys, migrating salmon and a sea turtle, many
MIBs, several derelict vessels, hundreds of Nike sneakers and hockey gloves, and the
After the tub toys first arrived in Sitka, flocks headed west along coastal Alaska and
the Aleutian Islands where— 3,500 miles from the spill — hundreds invaded
Shemya, as reported by Chrystle White. Many continued on westward to
Kamchatka, Japan, then redoubled the Pacific back to Sitka completing the 6,800
mile loop around the Pacific Ocean’s northernmost gyre, the North Pacific
Subpolar Gyre (hereafter the Gyre).OSCURS demonstrated the tracks the toys took, rounding the Gyre to Washington,
where Karen Gerber and Verne Krause recovered a turtle and duck, respectively. In
the Queen Charlotte Islands, Guthrie Schweers found two turtles and four frogs.
Remarkably, after three years, all three beachcomber finds agreed with OSCURS
trajectories around the Gyre.
The Orbison data indicate that flocks of toys completed four orbits of the Gyre. The
first (2 years) may be faster than the latter three (4, 3, 3 years), because the toys
developed holes but continued floating full of water buoyed by the low specific gravity
of their plastic.
Historic MIBs — Messages In Bottles — provide confirmation of the Gyre’s orbital
period as evident in the Orbison time series. In the 1950s, into the Gulf of Alaska
Canadian oceanographers hurled 33,869 MIBs in12-ounce brown beer bottles. Twelve
drifted around the Gyre in 1.9-4.2 years, matching the interval between the Orbison
peaks (2-4 years). The toys, plus MIBs, provide twenty estimates, indicating the mean
time to orbit the Gyre equals 2.9 years. As to speed, the mean orbital period equates to
6.9 miles per day over the 6,800-mile course around the Gyre.
Subpolar and Subtropical Gyres of the North Pacific Ocean. Heavy lines, average drift
path; small arrows, local currents; dots, Great Garbage Patch. Currents carry drifters along
the heavy lines around the Subpolar Gyre in three years, and around the Subtropical Gyre
in six years. Flotsam may circulate in the Garbage Patch for half a century.Dean and Tyler beachcombed an important contribution to oceanographic
science. The toys provide 40% of the orbital period estimates and the MIBs the
remaining 60%. How many more trips around the Gyre will the toys make in future
years? After four circuits, by mid-July 2004 Dean and Tyler found four toys; Kim Elliot
located a faded blue turtle. The Orbison data show numbers decreasing six-fold in a
decade from 25 in 1994 to four in 2004.
Prior to the Orbison data, OSCURS had suggested that the Subpolar Gyre could trap
flotsam like its neighbor to the south, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, famed for
its Texas-sized garbage patch. In 2003, beachcombers found flotsam half a century old
— a rubber ball and two glass fishing floats — which had been circling the Subtropical
Gyre for as many as eight circuits. The Orbison data indicate flotsam wheeling round
the Subpolar Gyre for up to four circuits. I wonder if Floatees will appear through
five. Other toys spun out of the Subpolar Gyre south into the Subtropical Gyre
where Lucy Keith recovered a turtle (Kure Island; July 1996), and Walt
Pich reclaimed a beaver and frog (Lanai Island; March 1997). Under the tropical sun,
many disintegrated to plastic shards of the size displayed by Richard Lang and Judith
Selby on the cover of this Alert. Ultimately, the toys will turn to dust, joining the scum
of plastic powder which rides the global ocean.
Statistical notes: time to drift around the Gyre equals 6,800 nautical miles divided by
the speed between the drifter’s start and ending observed time and position. Speeds
between start and end points: 20 estimates; mean = 6.93 mpd; standard deviation =
2.06 mpd; coefficient of variation (standard deviation/ mean) = 0.30. Time to complete
a single-circuit around the Gyre (6,800 nautical miles): 20 drifters; mean = 2.93 years;
standard deviation = 0.86 years; coefficient of variation = 0.29; 95% confidence limits
on the mean = ±0.40 years (there’s 95% certainty that the mean lies between 2.5-3.3
years); median = 3.0 years; range = 1.9-4.5 years. Gyre rotations, with a fifth peak
anticipated in 2007?
What became of the thousands of toys
beachcombers never reported? Some, the surf
buried and others spun out of the Gyre.
According to OSCURS, the currents transported
a number through Bering Strait into the Arctic
Ocean, where the pack ice conveyed them
onward over the North Pole into the North
Atlantic Ocean. Bethe Hagens observed a
duck in Maine (July 2003); and Sonali
Naik observed a frog in Scotland (August
2003). These drifts agree with a score of historic
transarctic drifters, including bottles, barrels, and
plastic drift cards.Interesting Facts about Ocean Waves and Currents
1. The tallest wave ever measured was 1719 feet at Lituya Bay, Alaska.
2. The tallest wave recorded in the open ocean was 95 feet during a storm near
3. Surface currents are important to ships as they can make it easy or difficult to travel
depending on the direction of the current.
4. Some marine animals take advantage of currents to migrate thousands of miles to
and from breeding grounds.
5. Ben Franklin published a map of the Gulf Stream in 1769.
6. Water takes around 1000 years to travel all the way around the whole globe
a. The oceans not only have waves, tides and surface currents — they also have
a constantly moving system of deep-ocean circulation driven by temperature
b. Known as the global ocean conveyor belt or thermohaline current (thermo =
temperature, haline = salinity), this deep ocean current gets one of its “starts”
in the polar region near Norway.
c. As sea ice forms, the water left behind becomes saltier and denser and begins
to sink, making room for warmer and less dense incoming surface water,
which in turn eventually becomes cold and salty enough to sink.
d. The cold dense water flows along the ocean bottom all the way from the
northern hemisphere to the Southern Ocean where it merges with more cold
dense water from Antarctica and is swept into the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
e. Eventually it mixes with warmer water and rises to the surface before finding
its way back to the Atlantic. It can take 1000 years to complete this cycle.