In 1992, a cargo ship container tumbled into the North Pacific, dumping 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys that were headed from China to the U.S. Currents took them, and news reports said some may have eventually reached Maine and other shores on the Atlantic.
Thirteen years later, journalist Donovan Hohn undertook a mission: He wanted to track the movements of the wayward ducks, from the comfort of his own living room.
"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," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk."
But Hohn's research led him on an odyssey that took him from Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii — and then onto China and the Arctic. He details the journey — via plane, foot and container ship — in 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.
Some of the ducks, says Hohn, made their way to the coast of Gore Point, Alaska, a remote isthmus at the southern tip of Kachemak Bay State Park. Hohn obtained his own rubber duck after visiting the isthmus with the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group of conservationists who wanted to clean up the debris along the coast.
"They set out on a pretty heroic undertaking, because to get this [ocean debris] out of the wilderness required 2 to 3 months of people camping and packing [the debris] up in a bag, and eventually an airlift," he says. "But while I was out there with them, toys were found. I found a plastic beaver. And another beachcomber found a duck and had mercy — he gave it to me."
The Plague Of Plastic In The Ocean
While tracking down the path of the rogue ducks, Hohn also confronted the plague of accumulating plastics in the ocean.
"When I set out following these toys, I didn't expect it to turn into an environmental story, but I very quickly learned ... that unlike the flotsam of ages past, the flotsam of today — much of it plastic — persists," he says. "It lasts visibly for decades and chemically for centuries because it doesn't biodegrade."
There are certain parts of the ocean where currents converge and spiral inward, collecting what's floating on the surface, Hohn says. Called convergence zones or "garbage patches," these parts of the ocean contain trash, plastic and toys — whatever happens to get sucked in while floating past.
"When I first heard the phrase 'garbage patch,' I imagined something dense," he says. "I initially imagined it as a floating junkyard, and you'd have to poke your way through it with a paddle if you're in a kayak. But it's not like that. You can't take a picture of it because that doesn't exist. What does exist is a whole lot of plastic out there, but it's spread out over millions of miles of ocean. And some of it floats on the surface where you can find it. And some of it floats just below the surface. And eventually all of it will photodegrade, so much of it is so small you're not going to be able to see it with the naked eye."
These tiny pieces of plastic — and substances that adhere to the plastics — can then enter the food chain.
"We know that in the marine food web, there is an alarmingly elevated contaminant burden in species at the top of the food web," he says. "What role plastic plays in that is an ongoing area of study."
On the importance of beachcombers
"There are people who do beachcombing for different reasons, but there's a community — a bit like avid bird-watchers — for whom it is more than just a pleasurable recreational thing to do when you go to the seashore. [For them] it's a hobby and a hunt. [There's a magazine] called Beachcombers Alert [that] puts the beachcombers on alert for Nikes or whatever — because there was a spill that's been reported — and then people go out and find them. So you not only have the thrill of discovering a surprise or treasure, but you also have the chance of, like on a scavenger hunt, finding something that you're looking for that actually might serve some scientific purpose."
On the importance of the spills to the scientific community
"They do show us something. The currents have been compared to rivers in the sea, but ocean currents don't flow like rivers between two banks — they meander [and] they change seasonally and are, in a way, more mysterious than one might think. They're almost comparable to the wind the way that they move and the way that they vary. By following flotsam spills, you do have useful data to show us the movement of the currents and how they change."
On the worst shipping container disaster in modern history
"[A ship named APL China] was traveling from Far East to the Pacific Northwest [in 1998] and it lost 407 containers overboard in a single night [after a possible typhoon]. The photographs that were taken when it was in port are pretty dramatic. ... This ship came in and it looked ravaged. Most of the rows of containers had toppled like dominoes. Some of them had been pancaked flat by the ones on top of them. Some containers were just missing — swept overboard. So it was a ruin when it staggered into port."
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