Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn
Penguin Group, 2011
Hardcover, 416 pages
Penguin Group, 2011
Hardcover, 416 pages
A revelatory tale of science, adventure, and modern myth.
When the writer Donovan Hohn heard of the mysterious loss of thousands of bath toys at sea, he figured he would interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, and read up on Arctic science and geography. But questions can be like ocean currents: wade in too far, and they carry you away. Hohn's accidental odyssey pulls him into the secretive world of shipping conglomerates, the daring work of Arctic researchers, the lunatic risks of maverick sailors, and the shadowy world of Chinese toy factories.
Moby-Duck is a journey into the heart of the sea and an adventure through science, myth, the global economy, and some of the worst weather imaginable. With each new discovery, Hohn learns of another loose thread, and with each successive chase, he comes closer to understanding where his castaway quarry comes from and where it goes. In the grand tradition of Tony Horwitz and David Quammen, Moby-Duck is a compulsively readable narrative of whimsy and curiosity.
The full title of Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn is 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, which really rather nicely encapsulates what this nonfiction book is about. An accident happens at sea and a container ship accidentally dumps 28,800 plastic bath toys (7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks) into the Pacific ocean.
Hohn writes: "We know where the spill occurred: 44.7 degrees North, 178.1 degrees East, south of the Aleutians, near the international date line, in the stormy latitudes renowned in the age of sail as the Graveyard of the Pacific, just north of what oceanographers, who are, on the whole, less poetic than mariners of the age of sail, call he subarctic front. We know the date - January 10, 1992 - but not the hour. (pg. 9)" After the spill beachcombers began to find the bath toys and a legend grew out of the initial news story that placed duck sightings from the spill even in the Atlantic.
Donovan Hohn goes in search of the bath toys trying to discover where they beached. This lead him to investigate plastics and what they are doing to the oceans and shorelines. His research also leads him to investigates ocean currents, gyres, shipping, Chinese toy manufacturing, and the arctic, among others. So, while Moby-Duck is ostensibly about the plastic bath toys lost at sea, they really become a rather small portion of his eventual investigation and travels.
While there is a wealth of information here, I did end up wishing that Hohn had concentrated on the bath toys lost at sea. What originally intrigued him enough to inspire the book also captured my imagination and made me want to read it. While I did enjoy it, it became a rather slow read full of more information than I was originally anticipating. It helps that he is a good writer and has a nice way with descriptions and imparting information. Hohn includes a selected bibliography and notes, which I always appreciate in nonfiction.
Highly Recommended - but know it's about much, much more than the missing bath toys.
At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I'd never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool's paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before. opening, Prologue
But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.
The next thing you know, it's the middle of the night and you're on the outer decks of a post-Panamax freighter due south of the Aleutian island where, in 1741, shipwrecked, Vitus Bering perished from scurvy and hunger. The winds are gale force. The water is deep and black, and so is the sky. It's snowing. The decks are slick. Your ears ache, your fingers are numb. pg. 4-5
We know where the spill occurred: 44.7 degrees North, 178.1 degrees East, south of the Aleutians, near the international date line, in the stormy latitudes renowned in the age of sail as the Graveyard of the Pacific, just north of what oceanographers, who are, on the whole, less poetic than mariners of the age of sail, call he subarctic front. We know the date - January 10, 1992 - but not the hour. pg. 9
There, in seas almost four miles deep, more than five hundred miles south of Attu Island at the western tip of the Aleutian tail, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of the insular Alaskan city of Sitka, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America - 7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks - hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free. pg. 10
"When a man has taken upon himself to beget children," Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote to Sophia Peabody, his fiancée, in 1841, "he has no longer any right to a life of his own." pg. 26
What if I followed the trail of the toys wherever it led, from that factory in China, across the Pacific, into the Arctic? I wouldn't be able to do it in a single summer. It would require many months, maybe an entire year. I might have to take a leave of absence, or quit teaching altogether. I wasn't sure how or if I'd manage to get to all the places on my map, but perhaps that would be the point. The toys had gone adrift. I'd go adrift, too. The winds and currents would chart my course. pg. 27
...thousands of containers spill from cargo ships every year, exactly how many no one knows, perhaps 2,000, perhaps as many as 10,000. pg. 34
"But 60 percent of the plastic will float, and the 60 percent that does float will never sink because it doesn't absorb water; it fractures into ever smaller pieces. That's the difference. There are things afloat now that will never sink." pg. 42
What Moore did discover were greater quantities of pelagic plastic than anyone suspected were out there.... The total dry weight of plastic Moore's samples contained - 424 grams - was six times greater than the dry weight of plankton and half again as much as any similar study had previously found. pg. 45
I explained the plastic-poisoning hypothesis.
"The fuel they burned in their boats going out there, back and forth, is probably worse for the environment than that stuff breaking down," he said - a notion, I had to concede, that had occurred to me too. pg. 135