Rubber ducky's odyssey
Imagine more than 28,000 rubber duckies floating on the Pacific Ocean. A more incongruous image is hard to invent. Then imagine where those duckies travel, as ocean currents carry them thousands of miles. Donovan Hohn was captivated by a real life version of this and tells the story in the very absorbing and entertaining 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. An English teacher at a private high school in New York City, Hohn read about the ducks in an essay he assigned his students. His imagination was sparked at once, and somehow he convinced his pregnant wife to allow him to quit his day job and to travel the globe on the trail of the iconic bath tub toy.
How did the duckies end up in such a state? Apparently, storms in the northern Pacific can be so treacherous that entire containers can fall off those huge container ships that bring our consumables from China. In 1992, such a fate befell the Ever Laurel, a Greek ship that left Hong Kong in early January and encountered hurricane-force winds and 36-foot waves. We’re talking about a ship weighing 28,000 tons. The steel lashings holding the containers snapped and 12 containers went overboard. Wouldn’t you like to see a YouTube of that? The poor duckies. (Actually, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles suffered the same fate.)
When a duck was found on a beach in Maine 11 years later, about the same time Hohn’s student wrote the essay, the author had to find out if it could possibly have been on that ship and had made it from the northern Pacific to the east coast. He spends several years traveling the world to solve the mystery. In Alaska, he trails environmentalists and beachcombers as they sift through the tons of trash along the thousands of miles of the Alaskan coast. Some are just looking for treasure; some are attempting to deal with the horrible truth and trashy consequences of our throw-away world that deposits tons of unbiodegradable plastic in the oceans. He travels to China to visit the plastic factory where the ‘floatees’ could have originated. He hitches a ride on a container ship that would travel a similar route in the northern Pacific as the doomed ship so he could experience awe at the wildness and expanse of the ocean. He joins a research team sailing the Arctic Ocean in an icebreaker to try to determine if the ducks could have made it through the Northwest Passage to Maine. He even details how the rubber ducky became the quintessential bath toy via Sesame Street.
Comparisons of Hohn's writing to that of John McPhee and Tony Horwitz are apt since Hohn’s writing captivates as he explains everything from driftology to oceanography, from climate change to Chinese toy making. He features the characters he meets along the way, including crusty sailors, obsessive beachcombers and determined scientists. He presents solid research yet imbues the story with his unsullied and profound sense of wonder and curiosity. He has explained the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other environmental disasters dispassionately and objectively enough that I could make it through the chapter without wanting to stop reading and start crying out of severe depression. Plus he’s such an English teacher, quoting Thoreau, Winnie the Pooh, and detailing Ishmael’s story from Moby Dick in his epilogue. This combination travel story/environmental study is fascinating from start to finish.