Bring the ‘Rubber Duck’ to Durban

2013-09-30 00:00

THE whole world loves the Rubber Duck, the giant floating sculpture currently berthed at Kaohsiung harbour, Taiwan, where it returned last weekend after spending a couple of days in storage while Typhoon Usagi tore up the area.

Since its creation by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in 2007, the Rubber Duck has visited 15 cities around the world, including Amsterdam, Sydney, Auckland, and Hong Kong.

“The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers,” says Hofman. “The rubber duck is soft, friendly and suitable for all ages!”

The inflatable PVC sculpture, inspired by the ubiquitous children’s bath-time toy, is not the only giant sculpture Hofman has produced, there’s also The Big Yellow Rabbit, the Kobe Frog, Two Blue Sparrows, several Slow Slugs and a Dead Fly, while a park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is the current residence of Fat Monkey, made from 10 000 flip flops.

But it’s the Rubber Duck that has caught the world’s imagination. “My sculptures cause an uproar, astonishment and put a smile on your face,” says Hofman. “They give people a break from their daily routines. Passers-by stop in front of them, get off their bicycle and enter into conversation with other spectators. People are making contact with each other again. That is the effect of my sculptures in the public domain.”

While Hofman’s is certainly the biggest yellow duck afloat it’s probably not the only one. Indeed at one time there were several thousand of them bobbing around on the world’s oceans. In January 1992 during a storm in the Pacific a cargo ship lost several containers, one of them contained nearly 28 800 bath toys — plastic yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs. When the container broke open the toys were released to the waves. Since then they have meandered the ocean currents around the globe prior to beaching in various locations.

The phenomenon provoked a book, perhaps inevitably titled Moby-Duck by author Donovan Hohn, though its lengthy subtitle indicates the subject has a more serious side: The True Story of 28 800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

The errant toys proved a boon for oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, who were busy modelling the world’s ocean currents in order to help fisheries, plot the likely course of flotsam (at one time they were tracking 61 000 pairs of Nike running shoes that went over the side in 1990) and to help find people missing at sea. The sheer numbers involved with the floating toys meant a much higher equivalent number of recoveries compared to their standard method of using 500 to 1 000 drift bottles.

The word went out to beachcombers on shorelines around the world to keep an eye out for the escaped toys. The first bunch turned up in Alaska in November 1992 and they kept on turning up in subsequent years, by which time Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham were correctly predicting their landfall destinations — even of those that became frozen fast in the Arctic ice for a spell only to make it to Britain and Ireland in 2007.

“The water in our world is our global bathtub,” sculptor Hofman is reported as saying. For several years, it literally was.

While most people are under the impression the Rubber Duck travels the world, in fact a separate duck is especially made for each location — though that individual might travel to different sites in the host country. The sculpture has to be commissioned by either the host city or country, which means financial outlay, and, considering the harbour locations, the whole enterprise usually requires buy-in from government.

Once everything is in place the Rubber Duck is “sculpted” on site by local manufacturers to Hofman’s specifications; currently there are seven ducks in existence, each with differing dimensions. Once the duck is complete it requires a team on hand 24 hours a day in case it needs to be quickly deflated because of bad weather.

Seeing the recent photographs of the Rubber Duck in Taiwan and the crowd of 200 000 visitors who pitched up to see it on its first day at Kaohsiung Harbour, I suddenly found myself thinking that here we are in KwaZulu-Natal on the east seaboard of South Africa, which just happens to be home to Africa’s busiest port, Durban. How come the Rubber Duck hasn’t been here? The main harbour embraced by the city and surrounding natural features, such as the Bluff, would make an ideal bathtub for a duck. So who’s bringing the Rubber Duck to Durban?

• feature1@witness.co.za

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