Read Moby-Duck Online

Authors: Donovan Hohn

Moby-Duck

Table of Contents
 
 
DONOVAN HOHN
VIKING
VIKING
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
 
First published in 2011 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
 
 
Copyright © Donovan Hohn, 2011
All rights reserved
 
Portions of this book first appeared in
Harper's, The New York Times Magazine,
and
Outside.
 
Map illustrations by David Cain
 
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Hohn, Donovan.
Moby-duck : an accidental odyssey : 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 / Donovan Hohn.
p. cm.
eISBN : 978-1-101-47596-6
1. Ocean currents. 2. Marine debris. 3. Plastic toys. 4. Hohn, Donovan—Anecdotes. I. Title.
GC231.2.H65 2010
551.46'2—dc2 2010033608
 
 
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For Beth,
and for my father,
and for my sons.
Facing west from California's shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity,
the land of migrations, look afar . . .
—Walt Whitman
 
There are more consequences to a shipwreck than the underwriters notice.
—Henry D. Thoreau
PROLOGUE
At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I'd never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool's paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.
At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.
Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic's changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China's Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.
I'd never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment's thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn't know and therefore didn't care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean's surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn't know what “pelagic” or “adsorb” meant, and if asked to use “lipophilic” and “hydrophobic” in a sentence I'd have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.
If asked to define the “six degrees of freedom,” I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom—delicious phrase!—are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I've experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six—rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine—and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.
At the outset, I figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.
 
 
But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.

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