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By Alison Boyle on

A Quacking Tale

Recently, my colleague David mentioned that we’re planning a major history of science gallery as part of our master plan. It’s got us thinking about some of our favourite objects in the collections. Here’s one of my all-time tops:

'The First Years' plastic duck, c.1992

Yes, it’s a toy duck. But not just any old toy duck. It’s part of a consignment of plastic toys lost from a container ship in the North Pacific during high storms on January 10, 1992. Around 29,000 toys spilled from the container and have been making a swim for it ever since, to the shores of Alaska, surviving ice in the Bering Straits, and heading into the North Atlantic.

Oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham have enlisted the help of beachcombers worldwide to track where the toys wash up. By following the mighty ducks and their floating friends, they can refine their models of ocean surface currents. It’s a great illustration of how scientists can come up with imaginative solutions to problems, and a charming example of members of the public working in tandem with scientists. Oceanographers track all sorts of flotsam – there’s also a flotilla of trainers bobbing about out there – but the storytelling potential of rubber duckies floating around the world’s biggest bathtub makes this case particularly appealing. You can find out more about Curtis and the ducks in his book.

The yellow ducks were accompanied by blue turtles, green frogs and red beavers who've since faded to white (Science Museum).

These toys are part of the first wave to be washed ashore – large numbers landed in Sitka, Alaska, ten months after the spill. We acquired these toys in 2005, following a response to posts we put on Sitka community websites under the heading ‘Science Museum, London, looking for a duck!’  We decided they should travel to the Museum in a box, by air, rather than swimming for it…