Born to Float

updated 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE OFFICE THAT JAMES INGRAHAM Jr. and Curtis Ebbesmeyer share is crammed with the essentials of serious science—reference books, computers, research papers. And, of course, yellow plastic duckies: a dozen of them perkily perched on desks, shelves and sills, in surprisingly good condition despite their long exposure to seawater. "These little guys are giving us a chance to learn things about the Pacific that we wouldn't otherwise know," says Ebbesmeyer.

The duckies didn't start out as research animals. They were part of a shipment of 7,250 tub toys—including blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs—being carried by container ship from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Wash. On Jan. 10, 1992, a storm knocked several containers overboard, loosing many of the toys into the epic bathtub known as the north Pacific. Months later, Ingraham, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, noticed a newspaper article reporting plastic tub toys washing up on the coast of Alaska.

Ingraham, 56, and Ebbesmeyer, 52, a private-sector oceanographer, placed newspaper ads in Alaska asking for tub-toy sightings. Months of investigation finally enabled them to locate the culprit canard liner, which was essential, since the voyages of the seafaring toys had to be plotted back to their point of origin. "Shipping companies are really secretive about this stuff," says Ebbesmeyer.

So far, some 400 "floaties" have been recovered, aiding the pair in their study of ocean currents, wind effects and drift patterns. "It's sort of a poor man's oceanography," says Ebbesmeyer. "A lot of oceanographers turn up their noses at what we're doing." That's because satellites and electronic buoys have made oceanography an increasingly high-tech science. Going low-tech has enabled Ingraham and Ebbesmeyer to make waves for much less money.

Ingraham says the fugitive toys, heading north and through the polar ice cap, should start arriving in the north Atlantic and washing up on the shores of Iceland, Norway and Great Britain after the turn of the century. Ebbesmeyer conducted his own experiment to see how the duckies will fare in intense cold—he stashed one in his freezer. "It didn't crack," he says. "They're tough little things."

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