What Rubber Duckies Can Tell Us About the World

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This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, July 15, 2003, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: A flotilla of rubber duckies bobbing around the world since 1992 are heading for the coast of New England. They are among 29,000 bathtub toys that fell from a container ship in the Pacific and in the course of things, giving science a new way to study the ocean.

Captain Charles Moore is founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (search). And that is today's big question. What can science learn from thousands of little rubber duckies floating around the globe?

CAPT. CHARLES MOORE, ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH: Well, we're learning that the ocean is not confined to its individual basin, that the Pacific Ocean water is also the same water that will eventually end up in the Atlantic Ocean. And this transport of a container spill from the Pacific to the Atlantic is an indicator of that.

GIBSON: Where did this spill occur in the Pacific?

MOORE: It occurred in the North Pacific. The trade route from Asia to the United States, where a lot of our plastic objects come from, is along a route which is at the convergence between the tropical Pacific and the North Pacific, and there are a lot of storms there. Occasionally, these boats are caught in them, and no matter how well the containers are strapped down, up to 10,000 are lost each year and many of them contain millions of objects. We found six million plastic bags, Taco Bell bags, Sears Roebuck bags floating over 1,000 miles from land.

GIBSON: [The rubber duckies] appear to have gone through the Bearing Sea and then north around the Arctic Ocean and around Greenland. They are now sloshing up around Cape Cod. That seems a pretty circuitous route for the seas to be traveling, never mind the ducks. Did you know that the ocean moved in that way?

MOORE: Yes, science have known for a long time that the waters of the oceans are not confined to their individual basins, that that they mix and move. So, it makes it impossible for pollution from one part of the ocean to not end up in other parts of the ocean. In spite of the fact that we produce a large amount of the pollutants that pollute the ocean, it is the areas outside of our own borders that are most affected. The Arctic Ocean, for instance, has the mammals with the highest levels of PCB's in them, which are industrial pollutants that we created to stop fires and transformers.

GIBSON: What else do you track? What else has spilled that you were able to follow around the globe and see where currents take objects?

MOORE: Well, I think the most significant input to the ocean is land-based plastic objects. And what we're able to do is track their breakdown. What interests me is the way in which plastic objects, after years of exposure to sunlight floating on the surface of the ocean, turn into tiny, plastic fragments, which are ingested by sea life and also absorb these industrial pollutants I talked about. I'm interested in how these things are, for instance, eaten by albatross. We note a colony in Hawaii. I believe I gave you some evidence of what they eat. It was mayonnaise jar lids and lighters from Japan.

These Hawaiian birds are the exact same species that live off Guadalupe Island (search) here near California. And those birds eat mostly plastic fragments, tinier pieces and that is because they are working the area at the edge of what we call the eastern garbage patch where most of the plastic has broken into fragments. The Hawaiian birds work the area off Japan, which is the western garbage patch and has fresh inputs directly from Japan. So whole objects versus fragments is one of the fascinating ways that we track the ocean's currents.

GIBSON: Captain Charles Moore, Captain, thank you very much. Appreciate it.

MOORE: Quite pleased to be here.

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