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Originally published Thursday, March 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Flotsametrics": As go the rubber duckies, so goes the ocean

"Flotsametrics and the Floating World" recounts Seattle oceanographer and author Curtis Ebbesmeyer's groundbreaking studies of tidal currents, which have tracked rubber duckies and missing sneakers, explained how Columbus discovered America and even helped solve crimes. Ebbesmeyer reads at Town Hall Seattle on Thursday.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Curtis Ebbesmeyer

The author of "Flotsametrics" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m., April 2, at Town Hall Seattle as part of the Seattle Science Lectures. Tickets are $5 and are available at, 800-838-3006 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.


"Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science"

by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano

Smithsonian Books, 286 pp., $26.95

Some men, the saying goes, have greatness thrust upon them. Curtis Ebbesmeyer had 29,000 plastic bathtub toys thrust on him.

The plastic duckies, turtles, frogs, and beavers escaped from a container ship January 10, 1992, in the north Pacific Ocean. Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who had recently achieved notoriety for his work tracking ocean-born Nike shoes, heard about the floating menagerie on Labor Day 1992, when the colorful beasties began to invade Sitka, Alaska. Working with his colleague Jim Ingraham, who had developed a computer modeling program called Ocean Surface Current Simulator (OSCURS), they predicted that the colorful critters would arrive in Washington state in roughly three years. The first one, a faded yellow duck, landed on November 10, 1994. Ebbesmeyer is now world-famous for his work with the ducks.

Writing with local journalist and author Eric Scigliano (whose most recent book was "Michelangelo's Mountain"), Curtis Ebbesmeyer has crafted the story of what led to his lifelong association with plastic ducks and other assorted flotsam.

Carrying the unwieldy title "Flotsametrics and the Floating World" (The Floating World would have been simpler and more poetic), the book reveals the hows and whys of the complicated currents that run the oceans and how Ebbesmeyer helped discern their patterns.

Part biography, part science, and part history, the book benefits from Scigliano's skills in telling a story and making science accessible. Who wouldn't want to read more of a paragraph that starts "As with bowling balls, so with human heads and bodies"?

Ebbesmeyer earned his doctorate in oceanography from the University of Washington in 1973, but he is not an academic. He has spent most of his career consulting, which has allowed him to pursue his passion, or what some might call obsession, for understanding the world's ocean currents.

Working out of his home base in Seattle, he has investigated messages in bottles (it seems a bit ironic that one way to study ocean currents is to foul them with thousands of glass bottles), body parts, and 78,932 Nike shoes.

His work has led him to connect Columbus's success in crossing the Atlantic with giant floating seed pods, to show how Persians beheaded in the 600s may have helped the inhabitants of the Bosporus Strait understand complicated undercurrents, and to explain that winds and sea currents pushed a crew of Japanese shipwreck survivors to Hawaii around 1260, where they intermingled blood lines with the native people.

Engagingly written, the book's one weakness is that in many quarters Ebbesmeyer's work is already well known.

His story has previously been told in two books, so "Flotsametrics" feels like a rehashing at times, but Ebbesmeyer's enthusiasm and passion for his work keeps his own story worth reading. Even after reading the earlier works, I came away with a better understanding of our watery planet.

Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano end with a call for environmental awareness. The ocean is full of trash and that is not good for our planet. Ebbesmeyer's work shows not only the science but the beauty and music of the oceans, and if we want to keep this harmony, we had better pay attention to our actions and their consequences.

Seattle author David B. Williams' book, "Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology" will be published by Walker & Co. in June.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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