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Review: ‘Moby-Duck’ by Donovan Hohn

<i>Moby-Duck</i> by Donovan Hohn

Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn

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By Donovan Hohn

Viking, 380 pages, $27.95

Updated: March 20, 2011 2:17AM

If a boatload of bath toys fell overboard during transit across the Pacific Ocean, would you care? Can you imagine yourself caught up in the imagery of green frogs, blue turtles, red beavers and yellow ducks aimlessly setting sail over stormy waters? Author Donovan Hohn was so taken with the idea that he quit his job to tell the tale of the toys in Moby-Duck: 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 .

Hohn begins his story as a high school English teacher at a private school in Manhattan. During a night of grading papers, he first learns of the missing bath toys while reading an essay about a student’s lucky rubber duck. Hohn became fascinated with the tale and soon learned the toys had departed from Hong Kong via the ship the Evergreen Ever Laurel on Jan. 6, 1992.

Although the Ever Laurel did not fax a weather report on Jan. 10, the day the toys tumbled overboard, a nearby ship did, “describing hurricane-force winds and waves thirty-six feet high.” That fateful night, south of the Aleutians, near the international dateline, just north of the subarctic front in the Pacific Ocean, the plastic duckies and other assorted animals set sail into legend. The first toys turned up 10 months later along the shores of Chichagof Island in Alaska, spotted by a group of beachcombers.

Moby-Duck is more than just a tale of one man’s fickle desire to “go adrift.” In his quest to follow the toys from their creation in a factory in China to their spill in the Pacific to their possible drift to the Arctic, Hohn encounters big questions. In chasing the “Floatees,” for example, Hohn learns that the ocean is full of garbage, most of it plastic. According to a 1997 paper he cites, it’s estimated that “globally 6.4 million tons of garbage were set adrift from ships every year; later estimates are higher still.” It doesn’t help that plastic can absorb pollutants and, as oceanographer Charlie Moore fears, even microscopic particles of plastic become “poison pills.”

All this floating trash is a problem because “unlike marine debris of centuries past, commercial plastics persist, accumulating over time.” When Hohn visits a crew attempting to clean up an isolated trash-filled shoreline in Alaska called Gore Point, he’s confronted with the big question of what to do about this problem.

Simply cleaning up the junk isn’t a viable solution, because the trash will eventually drift back. The sources are far-flung and too mobile to identify. Hammering that point home, Hohn finds one of the bath toys — a red beaver — while helping the cleanup crew. It’s also during this trip that he’s given a yellow duck, retrieved from debris on a shoreline near Gore Point. Gazing into its eyes, he has many questions for the duck, one being, “Was it coated in pollutants?”

The scale of Hohn’s book can be overwhelming at times. The author drifts through topics just as his beloved Floatees drifted across the seas. But Hohn navigates the complicated fields of oceanography, environmentalism, globalization and maritime shipping with surprising humor and ease, raising pressing questions about these topics without giving any clear answers to them — because there aren’t any. Hohn cleverly uses the deceptively whimsical premise of chasing a little plastic duck to provoke a massively complicated and thought-provoking conversation. Who knew spilled bath toys could be so important?

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