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Long-Lost Rubber Duckies Head for British Beaches

A flotilla of rubber duckies, washed overboard from a container ship in the North Pacific in 1992, is about to invade Britain, according to an American oceanographer.

For the past 15 years Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking nearly 30,000 Chinese-made plastic bath toys — yellow ducks, green frogs, blue turtles and red beavers — that were released into the Pacific Ocean when a container was washed off a cargo ship during a storm.

Some of the bath toys, marketed in the U.S. as "Friendly Floatees," are expected to reach Britain after a journey of nearly 17,000 miles, having crossed the Arctic Ocean frozen into pack ice, bobbed the length of Greenland and been carried down the eastern seaboard of the United States.

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Ebbesmeyer, who is based in Seattle, said yesterday that those that had not been trapped in circulating currents in the North Pacific, crushed by icebergs or blown ashore in Japan were bobbing across the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream.

Any beachcomber who finds one of the ducks or their kin will be able to claim a $100 reward from the toys' American distributor, The First Years Inc.

The ducks began life in a Chinese factory and were being shipped to the U.S. from Hong Kong when three 40-foot containers fell into the Pacific during a storm on Jan. 29, 1992.

Two-thirds of them floated south through the tropics, landing months later on the shores of Indonesia, Australia and South America.

But 10,000 headed north and by the end of the year were off Alaska and heading back westwards.

It took three years for the Friendly Floatees to circle counterclockwise east to Japan, past the original drop site and then back to Alaska on a current known as the North Pacific Gyre before continuing north towards the Arctic.

Many were stranded as the currents took them through the Bering Strait, which divides Alaska from Russia.

Ebbesmeyer predicted that they would spend years trapped in the Arctic ice, moving at the rate of one mile a day towards the Atlantic.

In 2000, eight years after their journey began, the ducks were reported in the North Atlantic. In 2003, when they were expected to wash up on the American eastern seaboard, The First Years announced the reward offer.

By that point the Floatees had been bleached white by the sun and sea water.

Sightings in the past two years have been scant, but oceanographers believe that their next port of call is southwestern England, southern Ireland and western Scotland.

Simon Boxall, of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England, said that the ducks offered a great opportunity for climate-change research.

"They are a nice tracer for what the currents are doing as they travel around the world, and currents are what determines our climate, and cycles of carbon," he said. "I would ask [vacationers] to keep an eye out, as they might be very few and far between by now. It's a real adventure story and the plastic should last 100 years, so we hope it will continue."

The landfalls have all been logged on a computer model called the Ocean Surface Currents Simulation, which is used to help fisheries and find people lost at sea.

Two children's books have been written about the saga and the ducks have become collector's items, some changing hands for $1,000.