There are no firm numbers about how often it happens, but it is believed that every year, thousands or even ten thousand containers are lost from large ships traversing the ocean. The contents of these spills end up contributing to large areas of the sea that are replete with tiny, broken up particles of discarded plastic.
One notable case occurred in 1992. Far to the northwest of Hawaii, a cargo ship lost a container carrying 28,000 Friendly Floatee rubber ducks. Thanks to some ingenuity on the part of Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, these ducks gave an interesting set of insights into our oceans.
Those scientists realized that the ducks would keep floating for years and, since they knew roughly where the spill occurred, they could be used to track how waters circulate through the oceans.
The ducks turned up on beaches throughout the Pacific, and during the mid-2000s even made it to the Atlantic Coasts of North America and the UK. The ducks are still mostly in good shape when they’re found, although the color has often been bleached by the sun (some frogs in the same spill have held their color better).
Dr. Ebbesmeyer set up a website to allow people to report finds that might have been from that batch and says he can recognize them from regular photos, so if you ever find a rubber duck on the beach, feel free to check in.
This spill illustrated both how waters from the Pacific circle in a large gyre, turning slowly in a clockwise direction, and how occasionally some of the water escapes and enters another ocean. On the downside though, it also shows how once plastic trash gets into an ocean, it can still be out there decades later, waiting for the wrong passing fish to eat it.
Image credit: Alexander Kaiser, pooliestudios.com
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