The Friendly Floatees

The Friendly Floatees is the name given to a consignment of plastic children’s bath toys that fell into the Pacific Ocean from a container ship during a storm in 1992. Within a year Friendly Floatees began to wash up on coastlines across the world, with Friendly Floatees being found on beaches in Alaska, Hawaii and Japan. Others may have made their way to the arctic and become trapped in ice, while at least one toy is believed to have made its way to the United Kingdom and washed up on a beach in Scotland. The Friendly Floatees incident shows how seemingly innocuous plastic items can become an enduring form of pollution once they enter the world’s seas and oceans, and underlines how difficult it will be to solve the world’s marine plastic crisis.

Rubber ducks
Rubber ducks similar to the Friendly Floatees.

The Friendly Floatees were a range of plastic children’s bath toys, taking the form of frogs, turtles, beavers, and most famously, yellow ducks. They were manufactured in China and were in the process of being transported from Hong Kong to the Port of Tacoma in Washington State in the USA where they would be sold by The First Years, a Massachusetts-based retailer of products for babies and children. Around 28,000 individual Friendly Floatees products were being transported inside a shipping container on the deck of the Ever Laurel, a 29,000 ton, 200-metre long cargo vessel. The Ever Laurel set off on its journey across the Pacific on the 6th of January 1992.

When the Ever Laurel was almost at the halfway point of its journey the vessel ran into extremely bad weather at an unknown time on 10th January. Exactly what happened has never been confirmed, but the vessel was caught in a storm, with some reports claiming that the Ever Laurel battled against hurricane-force winds and waves ten metres high. It is presumed that this caused the Ever Laurel to roll to such an extent that several of the containers on its deck became displaced and slid overboard, with the container with the Friendly Floatees inside opening up as it fell into the sea.

As the Friendly Floatees toys were made of sealed plastic they were extremely buoyant and immediately floated to the surface, while the shipping containers and the rest of their contents sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Ever Laurel continued on its journey to Tacoma, Washington, arriving on the 16th of January. The Friendly Floatees were, however, only beginning their long journey across the world.

Shipping container
The Friendly Floatees were lost from a shipping container as they were transported across the Pacific [file image].

The first Friendly Floatees toys were found washed up on a beach at Sitka, Alaska at the end of 1992, a location around 850 miles from their original destination in Washington. Over the following months and years, hundreds of the Friendly Floatees were found across the Gulf of Alaska and surrounding areas. Further Friendly Floatees had moved northwards and washed up on beaches in Hawaii, while others were pushed back in the direction the Ever Laurel had come from and ended up on the coastline of Japan and other Asian countries. Other Friendly Floatees made much, much longer journeys. Around eight years after they first entered the sea Friendly Floatees began turning up in the North Atlantic. It was believed that these Friendly Floatees had been pushed northwards through the Baring Strait and become frozen in Arctic pack ice. This ice would then have moved eastwards, eventually melting as it reached the warmer northern Atlantic and releasing the Friendly Floatees which then travelled down into European waters. Fifteen years after they were lost at sea, Friendly Floatees were predicted to begin washing up on the coast of the UK.

Friendly Floatees mapq
Map showing the direction the Friendly Floatees have travelled in since being lost from the Ever Laurel.

Some UK news outlets reported that a woman had found one of the Friendly Floatees on a beach in Devon in 2007, but closer analysis revealed that it was not one of the toys which had been lost off the Ever Laurel. However, there has been one Friendly Floatee found off the coast of Scotland which is believed to be genuine. It is believed that many of the Friendly Floatees may be trapped in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a huge circulating ocean current, which means they may never make landfall.

Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer
Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer

The Friendly Floatees did provide some positive points. American oceanographer Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer used the movements of the Friendly Floatees to help develop his computer modelling programmes which track and predict the movements of ocean currents. The large number of Friendly Floatees offered a significant advantage over the much smaller number of tracking drifter devices which were usually released by scientists and researchers. Dr Ebbesmeyer was able to correctly predict where many of the future Friendly Floatees would wash up across the world.

Over a quarter of a century on from their loss the Friendly Floatees are still washing up on beaches across the world. The Friendly Floatees have become extremely collectible with some reports now stating that people will pay up to $1000 (£760) for genuine and confirmed Friendly Floatees. While the story of the Friendly Floatees was once presented as a light-hearted and funny tale of children’s bath toys adrift on the high seas it is now often seen in more serious terms. The Friendly Floatees are a very real example of the way in which plastic pollution is effectively indestructible, and highlights how plastic released into the seas and oceans will be around for decades. Thankfully the issue of plastic pollution and its impact on the environment is finally getting global attention, with international action now being taken to try to reverse the effects of decades of damage caused by plastic pollution.

The definitive book on the Friendly Floatees is Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. It is written by Donovan Hohn and was first published in 2011. It can be bought on Amazon by clicking here.