It's got all the elements of a great adventure yarn: a ship in turbulent seas, containers tumbling overboard leading to possible environmental catastrophe, survivors washed up on distant shores and scientists determined to discover what really happened.

Yet the main characters in this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale are plastic bath toys called Friendly Floatees and they're central to a children's play, Lost at Sea.

The Floatees' journey began during a storm in the North Pacific Ocean, somewhere near the International Date Line, on 10 January, 1992. Packed into containers and loaded onto the ship Ever Laurel, they found themselves afloat when 10 containers were washed overboard.

There were 28,800 of the children's bath toys in one container which burst open releasing red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. The cardboard packaging quickly disintegrated and the toys began to do what they were designed for and float.


Rather than viewing it as an environmental disaster, two oceanographers, Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, began tracking their progress.

Nearly a year later, the toys started washing up on beaches in Alaska, Canada and the USA's Pacific North-west; later some were found on the USA's east-coast and a few made it as far as Hawaii. Others were trapped in Arctic pack ice.

Their myriad journeys have allowed Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham to track their progress on the "gyre" - a constantly circulating current between Japan, South-east Alaska, the Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands - and construct more accurate ocean surface current models.

The tale has also led to a handful of books, including two children's stories, and an animated movie about the plight of the toys which have become collectors' items.

Asked to write a play for the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Gill Robertson, founder and director of theatre company Catherine Wheels, recalled hearing about the ducks.

Their story became the basis for Lost at Sea, which arrives in Auckland this week.
Consulting with scientists, including a marine biologist, Robertson found herself getting more interested in the plight of the floatees and what it revealed about our oceans.

"I learned heaps - all about gyres and what's in our oceans. I mean, there's a mountain that's higher than Mt Everest down there! But, by the end of working of this, I was distraught about the amount of plastic that ends up in the sea.

"I didn't want to go to the supermarket because I feared I'd be taking everything out of its plastic wrapping."

But the facts had to be presented in a way to entertain and educate young theatre-goers without giving them nightmares.

Lost at Sea became a story about discovery, centred on two children living on opposite sides of the ocean and fascinated by the true story of the 28,800 toys. As they start to find out more, the youngsters begin to uncover the mysteries of the sea and discover more about how it shapes life on Earth.

"Every show is a challenge to make but this one had a different emphasis to our previous ones and we had so much material," Robertson says. "It was fun meeting the different scientists and striking the balance between entertaining but getting the facts - the science - into the story. It was all about trying to find the balance."

While in town, Robertson may pop down to one of our local beaches, admitting she's become quite enthusiastic about beachcombing. Yes, she's paid more attention to what she sees whenever she walks along the beach 32km from her Edinburgh home.

"I've never found a duck. I doubt you'd find one now; I think those that were going to wash up have all done so."

What: Auckland Arts Festival - Lost at Sea
Where & when: Loft, Q Theatre Thursday - Sunday; Mangere Arts Centre March 25