Books: In Search of Rubber Ducks

Books: In Search of Rubber Ducks

In January 1992, deep within a tempestuous stretch of subarctic sea, a Taiwan ship on its way from Hong Kong to the U.S. was beset by foul weather and lost several steel containers overboard. One of these cracked open upon hitting the water, liberating its cargo: 28,800 plastic children’s bathtub toys in the shapes of turtles, frogs, beavers and ducks.

Several months and many untold thousands of sea miles later, the figurines began to bob ashore along the coasts of Alaska and Washington State, to the delight and bewilderment of local beachgoers. Eventually, as more and more toys lapped ashore, media outlets as diverse as the Guardian and PEOPLE magazine began pondering the toys’ origins. The mystery reached the New York desk of Donovan Hohn, then a schoolteacher . Hohn was tickled by the thought of an armada of rubber duckies traversing the immensities of the Pacific. He soon found himself staying up late consulting maps, e-mailing oceanographers, calling shipping companies, and trying to flesh out the story of where the toys came from and how they could possibly have drifted 8,000 km through the Arctic to the coast of Maine . His intention was to throw together a quirky magazine article, but as he puts it in the 400-plus-page book that instead came about, “Questions can be like ocean currents. Wade in too far and they carry you away.”

Like the great American whaling classic so goofily alluded to by its full title — 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’s book is a sprawling work of obsession. Whereas Ahab appertained in the whale a beastly manifestation of fate’s cruel mysteries, Hohn sees in his innocuous plastic quarry an opportunity to chart a narrative through the environmental degradation of our present day.

Despite a desperate fear of open water, he joins a research mission that sails into the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastic particles are “46 times as prevalent in the water as plankton.” He travels to Dongguan, China, to observe the cutthroat world of high-volume Chinese toy manufacturing, visiting the very factory where his bath toys were originally forged in low-density polyethylene. Days after undergoing back surgery, he heads to Gore Point, Alaska — “North America’s most inaccessible coastline” — so that he can take part in a beach cleanup where the first rubber ducks were discovered. On the Hawaiian island of Naalehu, he walks on a rainbow beach composed entirely of sea-deposited granulated plastic. And the cast of characters Hohn encounters would do any sea dog proud — from the transsexual legal expert who defends big shipping conglomerates to Charlotte Lee, owner of the world’s largest rubber-duckies collection.

Never didactic, always self-deprecatory, Hohn makes for a good shipmate, discussing a great deal of ecological calamity without going shrill. Cultural history, sea lore and nuanced readings of Melville are adroitly interwoven through rich descriptive passages and elegantly summarized swaths of oceanographic arcana. All of which leaves the reader feeling much as Hohn himself did upon observing a scientist delineate the complex habits of Arctic seafowl: “Although I have no use for such ornithological information, I admire it. I’d like to be able to read all the world so closely.”