Adrift in the Pacific Ocean: bath toys and curiosity

By Rob Verger
Globe Correspondent / March 19, 2011

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If oceans were bathtubs, the biggest bathtub in the world would be the Pacific. And it was into the Pacific in 1992 that nearly 29,000 plastic bath toys were spilled when 12 metal containers fell off a ship in a storm. The toys were shaped like turtles, beavers, frogs, and ducks. The spill, and everything related to it, is the subject of “Moby-Duck,’’ by Donovan Hohn, who is GQ magazine’s features editor.

The book, by turns light-hearted and serious but always a pleasure to read, touches on quite a few subjects: oceanography and drift, shipping and manufacturing, pollution from plastics, the difference between what’s natural and synthetic, and perhaps most endearingly, the nature of childhood, innocence, and paternity.

Hohn begins with an account of the spill, and how later, the plastic animals washed up in, among other places, southeast Alaska. Hohn, who was at one point a teacher, recounts how he first came to hear about the incident from a student, who wrote about it in response to an assignment in which Hohn “asked students to practice what James Agee called the archeology of the ordinary.’’ The idea is that exploring one subject in depth can help reveal something bigger, like “what Thoreau did for Walden Pond, or Melville for whaling.’’ (“Moby-Dick’’ is a recurring, and apt, touchstone in this book.) Hohn treats the spill of the bath toys with the spirit of this philosophy, examining all thematic aspects of the incident. The book is not a tightly focused narrative on only the spill itself; instead, “Moby-Duck’’ uses the spill as a jumping off point and sets sail from there.

The rest of the book is divided into a series of reporting expeditions. In the first, called “The First Chase,’’ he goes beachcombing on Kruzof Island in Alaska, where some of the toys washed ashore. He does not find any himself, but of beachcombing he writes, “There is pleasure in setting your senses loose. At the sight of something half-buried, the eye startles and the imagination leaps.’’ Part of the joy of this book is observing Hohn’s thoughtful engagement with his environment.

A major theme involves what happens when plastic finds its way into the ocean, and Hohn reports that “naturalists recently recovered 252 plastic items from the carcass of a single Laysan albatross chick.’’ In “The Second Chase,’’ Hohn helps clean a plastic-filled beach called Gore Point in Alaska, where he finds one of the toys: “a plastic beaver. Not a duck, but good enough,’’ he writes.

Trawling for plastic in the ocean near Hawaii in “The Third Chase,’’ he notes, “the amount of plastic in the ocean is increasing, more so in convergence zones than elsewhere.’’ And in another chapter, memorably, he crosses the Pacific in a container ship, passing the longitudinal point where the spill occurred.

In “The Last Chase, Part One,’’ after an opening section in which Hohn traces the different hypothetical routes the toys took, Hohn describes a voyage he took on a ship out of Woods Hole, which was studying a phenomenon called mesoscale eddies. This section, while a fascinating oceanographic exploration, feels the least connected to the spill of the toys, and could almost exist as a stand-alone essay. But still, it provides information on ocean currents, something connected to the book’s subject. The last section describes a trip Hohn took on an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, into which some toys perhaps drifted.

“Moby-Duck’’ is highly readable and, importantly, alive with a sense of intellectual curiosity. Beyond just reporting the facts, Hohn engages with them philosophically. It’s a comprehensive account of everything connected to the spill of those toys. Indeed, what Melville did for whaling, Hohn has done for plastic bath toys lost at sea.

Rob Verger can be reached at rob

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 By Donovan Hohn

Viking, 402 pp., $27.95