Books: the wild chase for Moby-Duck

The tale of 28,800 plastic bath toys lost in a Pacific storm led Donovan Hohn into the Arctic, across rough, polluted seas and to the Pearl River Delta. Carl Wilkinson was swept along.

Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea
Donovan Hohn
Union Books, 2012

In Eric Carle’s 2005 children’s book Ten Little Rubber Ducks, a group of cheerful yellow bath toys are transported across an ocean and then fall — cheerfully — overboard. They bob around in the clear blue waters, having numerous adventures, until one joins up with a string of real ducks and off they paddle.

This charming tale is based on an actual spillage in 1992 that caught the imagination of the international media much as it did Carle’s, and is now the focus of Donovan Hohn’s masterful Moby-Duck.

On January 10 that year, at 44.7°N, 178.1°E, south of the Aleutian Islands “in the stormy latitudes renowned in the age of sail as the Graveyard of the Pacific”, a cargo ship called the Ever Laurel faced hurricane-force winds and waves 11 metres high. Pitching like “a toy in a Jacuzzi”, the Ever Laurel, “a floating warehouse weighing 28,904 deadweight tons and powered by a diesel engine the size of a barn” lost two columns of six- or 12-metre-long metal shipping containers stacked six high. In one of those containers was a consignment of bath toys.

Where children’s authors and newspaper reporters saw an armada of cheerful rubber ducks, in Moby-Duck — part whimsical adventure, part steel-eyed investigation into the global economy, marine pollution, wilderness and our relationship with all three — Hohn finds a darker, more complex tale of trade and industry and the proliferation of plastic that is poisoning our seas. For a start, he points out, the rubber ducks of legend weren’t actually rubber but polyethylene and they weren’t all ducks either. There were also blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs — 28,800 in all.

Hohn, a former English teacher, set out on a series of journeys to track down the toys almost 15 years after the spill. Quoting James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he says he wanted to look upon his subject “almost illimitably long” in the hope that he would see “the cruel radiance of what is”, rather than, as Hohn adds himself, “the narcotic shimmer of what isn’t”.

He quotes liberally from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, classics of American literature; lines of the poets Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens come to mind unbidden as he stands atop flotsam and jetsam or stares into an abyss of plastic waste. But it’s all intricately woven with such lightness of touch, enthusiasm and curiosity that you follow him wherever he leads. And he goes to some far-out places.

In his quest, Hohn journeys to the Alaskan city of Sitka, where the bath toys made landfall, and goes beachcombing with “the heavyset Dr E” — oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer. He joins a group of conservationists in Alaska bagging up the great midden heap of the remote Gore Point, where the north Pacific’s rubbish is flung ashore on the Kenai Peninsula by raging seas, and finds a red beaver. And he sails into the “Garbage Patch” with Charles Moore (“the Ahab of plastic hunters”), who has made it his life’s work to monitor the North Pacific Gyre, where a great swirling confluence of tides has trapped everything from floating fridges and TVs to the tiny nurdles of plastic used for extrusion into all manner of goods.

On he goes to China to meet workers in the less than cheerful toy factories that supply the western demand for those bright yellow icons of childhood, and into the Arctic aboard an icebreaker where some of the ducks blithely sailed.

Hohn does justice to the scope and magnitude of his subject, while carrying the reader with him on his epic voyage of discovery rather than presenting it ready-packaged. “There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice,” wrote Thoreau. Moby-Duck proves the point magnificently.

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012