Will Byrnes's Reviews > 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

Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn
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Jun 05, 11

bookshelves: non-fiction, economics, alaska, nature, science
Read from May 23 to June 01, 2011

Plastic Duckie, You’re the one. Well, one of 28,800 anyway.

Donovan Hohn begins his tale with an accident at sea. A container ship, in the face of fifty-foot waves, rolls sufficiently to dump more than a few containers, those box-car sized giant legos that we use to transport stuff from here to there. One such dumpee held a large quantity of plastic bath toys. Included were beavers, frogs, turtles and the most-familiar, ducks. Not rubber, mind you, but plastic. His aim is to find as many places as possible where the friendly critters might have beached. Did they all? Beach, that is? What happened to these things? That is the crux of the investigation. Or at least the Maguffin of the story, as Hohn, in questing after ultimate ports of the lost bath toys, finds many items of interest along the way.

The location of the spill is discovered in short order, but we learn that such information is a closely held corporate secret. Hohn sets off on a variety of individual adventures. He travels on a thousand-foot-plus container ship through the very waters where the bath toys had taken a tumble. They disembarked south of the Aleutians, in a current known as the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre. I presume they proceeded to gimble in the waves. (Ok, Ok, pushing it. I know). Is there any chance that they managed to find their way into Arctic waters and then through and down to the Atlantic coast? I’m not telling.

He joins Chris Pallister, head of an Alaskan NGO, trying to clean up the mass quantities of floating crap that winds up on parts of the Alaskan coast. Chris had had an eye-opening experience in the political world
the first day he [Pallister] reported to duty [as a staffer for Alaska’s Republican senator Frank Murkowski] …Murkowski assigned him the task of rifling through the Endangered Species Act for loopholes.
There are those who contend that Chris’s efforts do nothing to solve the problem, that cleaning up the extant mess only gives cover to those who are responsible for it, and drains available resources from better targeted efforts. Hohn sails with marine scientists and checks out a Pacific location known as the Great Garbage Patch. It turns out there is an explanation for why flotsam collects in certain places, and one may conjure images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. He sails on a Canadian Ice Breaker, visits far-north native communities, visits the factory where the floaters were born, even checks in with the child psychology professionals who had a hand in the toys’ design.

As with any good book there are at least as many questions raised as answers found. And as with most good stories, it is about the journey, not the destination.

We learn something about giant container ships, why they are so gigantic, how they fare in the ocean, and learn what special oceanic tricks might have caused the ducks to dive. We learn a fair bit about ocean currents and the more sprightly gyres. There is significant information on the status of the Arctic Ocean and a compelling discussion on the nature of “the commons." Here are a few more nuggets. Albatrosses go after floating plastic because it tends to be encrusted with barnacles. Only 5 percent of plastics get recycled. Among the many theories of the nature of the North Pole, Plato thought that the pole lay at the head of a giant tunnel through which water circulated to the earth’s core. Sounds like a theory Ted Stevens could get behind. One of my favorite factoids in the book was why the federal government promoted the use of bath toys in the 1940s. It is bound to make you smile.

So, read, enjoy, learn.

This brings us to some other aspects. First I have to offer up a large asterisk. I found this book to be a rather slow read. But I am not sure how much was the book and how much was me. For reasons that I will not go into here, my spirits have been at a low ebb for a week or so, and I might have had a tough time getting through The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck let alone a somewhat lengthier tale of her distant relations. But now that I have made my excuses…

For a book like this to succeed it must engage the reader, it must offer new information, and it must put you at ease with your Virgil. It does not hurt if it is a fast read, and it is a good thing if the reader cares about the author’s quest. There is a wealth of information here, but I felt that information appeared at the peaks of waves and the distance between peaks was sometimes too great. Hohn seems like a pretty decent guy, likeable, intelligent, inquisitive. He reports about his struggles coping with being away from home for considerable durations, once as his first child is about to pop out. Kudos to the missus for her extreme understanding and forebearance. Hohn comes across well, but I felt that there was maybe a bit too much of his personal experience bobbing to the surface at times, and that it slowed down the story he was telling. I will not tell the final result of his journey of discovery, but I did feel that he drifted off course a time or two and that also slowed things down.

So bottom line is that this is a book that has a wealth of information to impart. You will be surprised enough at some items and will learn enough overall to make this a worthwhile read, despite running into an occasional doldrum.
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Comments (showing 1-3)




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message 3: by Jeanette (new) - added it

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" I had this from the library and returned it unread. It turned out to be much more in-depth than I expected. Maybe I'll try again another time.


Will Byrnes I am only a few pages in, so will see.


message 1: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Loved the review Will. And a life on the ocean waves seems to have suited Hohn well. But only 5% of plastics get recycled? Now that is grim news.


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