Shelf Life

In search of ‘Moby-Duck’

Marketplace Staff Mar 7, 2011
Shelf Life

In search of ‘Moby-Duck’

Marketplace Staff Mar 7, 2011


Kai Ryssdal: Billions of dollars worth of cargo goes back and forth across the oceans every day. It’s just the cheapest way to get something from Point A to Point B. But there are real costs to the environment, beyond just fuel and diesel engine exhaust. Think about the stuff that falls off those container ships and into the ocean.

That’s what happened in 1992 when the cargo ship Evergreen Ever Laurel — bound from Hong Kong to the port of Tacoma, Wash. — hit rough seas and lost 12 containers. One of them was full of bath toys, rubber duckies — 28,800 of them. Donovan Hohn writes about the missing toys and how he set about in tracking them down in his new book, “Moby-Duck.” Good to have you here.

Donovan Hohn: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: So I’m going to start some place I don’t usually start, which is reading the full subtitle of this book, and it goes like this: “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.” So, why’d you go in search?

Hohn: Why’d I go in search?

Ryssdal: Yeah.

Hohn: There are many different answers to that, but the two that I think are the most important ones are, when I heard this story, I found myself wanting to imagine it — this idea of rubber duckies, as the news stories usually said, going adrift. And I suppose the second was that oceanographers began trying to map where the toys went and there’s witchcraft in a map. I wanted to follow their trail.

Ryssdal: This is, or was I suppose since it’s done, a quest, in the truest sense of the word. I mean, you were gone for long periods of time.

Hohn: Yeah, I was. Tell my wife about it.

Ryssdal: Yeah, well, we’ll get there in a minute. We should probably point out, though, that even though they were called rubber duckies, they were made of plastic.

Hohn: Yup.

Ryssdal: And the discovery that you made was that our oceans are crowded with plastic and all kinds of stuff that happens in the course of everyday global trade.

Hohn: Yeah. When I set out on the quest, I thought it was just going to be an adventure, but the currents carried me to an environmental story that I’d never heard about, which is the accumulation of plastics at sea.

Ryssdal: Tell me about this place called the North Pacific Gyre.

Hohn: That’s the scientific term for this circuit of currents that circle the North Pacific, from East Asia to the Pacific Northwest of America and back around. And at the heart of that gyre, the technical name is a mouthful, it’s called the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone. And the currents there end up collecting flotsam that drifts into them. Things can float around there for a long time.

Ryssdal: And they do. And a point of fact, at one point this oceanographer hands you, I think it’s an old fishing net, right?

Hohn: Yeah. Drift net floats, yeah that floats, that would hold them, yeah.

Ryssdal: And he said, “Hold onto this for a second” and you did, and then you put it down. And he said, “OK, now look at your hand.”

Hohn: And there were little grains of foamed plastic that looked a little bit like pollen, which is the fate of much of what is out there. There are these images of what has become popularly known as the Pacific Garbage Patch. That name suggests almost some sort of floating junkyard, and it’s not what it looks like because the stuff does degrade in sunlight. It doesn’t biodegrade, nothing can eat it, but it does break down into fragments and then eventually into dust that blows through the water column like dust through air.

Ryssdal: I don’t want to spoil the ending to this story, but there were reports that these little duckies had somehow ridden these currents up into the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia and across the Polar ice caps, and down to the East Coast of the United States. Did that pan out?

Hohn: Well, that was probably the most preoccupying mystery. It’s the one that took a book to answer in a way. There was one credible sighting in Maine, but the beachcomers didn’t keep the evidence. I have my suspicions in the end, but to this day, in 2007, they were supposed to arrive in England and no one found them there either. So no one has yet found a sure thing.

Ryssdal: I want to ask you for a minute about your son. Bruno pops up every now and then through this book, and when you turn the last he’s three years old and you guys are throwing pine cones into the Hudson River down in the south end of Manhattan. But you were gone for long stretches while this guy was a kid.

Hohn: Yeah. I was.

Ryssdal: I wonder how that went because that would have killed me.

Hohn: It was probably, in a weird way, more than seafaring and rough weather, I will say the hardest part of the trip. Initially, when I set out doing this I had this idea of the title, “Moby-Duck,” which was a little bit of a joke, but also because if I have to name a favorite novel that’s it. And one of the things I noticed on the last time I last read it was how much fatherhood was on Melville’s mind, and I noticed in a biography that he actually became a father during the course of writing “Moby Dick,” too. So it’s there.

Ryssdal: Donovan Hohn. The book is called “Moby-Duck.” There is a huge, long subtitle, which you can check out at our Big Book blog. We’ve got a map of where Donovan went, we’ve got pictures, we’ve got an excerpt you can read, all kinds of good stuff. Donovan, thanks a lot.

Hohn: Thanks a lot, Kai.

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