For the author of Moby-Duck, Donovan Hohn, it all started with a school assignment.

In 2008, he challenged his journalism class to find the "archaeology of the ordinary." A student, known to be a bit of an odd one, wrote his assignment on his lucky rubber duck. In passing, the student mentioned a newspaper article that reported around 29,000 bath toys being lost into the ocean in the early 1990’s.

This little nugget of information became an obsession for Hohn, who spent years tracking their remarkable journey. He travelled to the Arctic, Hawaii, China and more, all the while learning about ocean currents, the perils of plastic (and other objects) discarded into the ocean, and his own journey into the uncharted waters of fatherhood.

I spoke to Hohn recently about his adventure hunting the elusive bath toys, known as Floatees, which were not all yellow ducks, but equally divided between green frogs, blue turtles and red beavers. He chronicles his adventure in his new book, Moby-Duck, now available from Viking publishing.

David Manly: In the book, you describe how the whole process started, thanks to a student in one of your classes. But how did this passing thought turn into a multi-year obsession?

Donovan Hohn: When I was teaching high school English, I was also doing magazine writing in the summer. After the student had done his revisions and was moving on with his life, I asked if I could run with it.

But, I had initially thought of doing just a plain magazine piece all from the comfort of my desk.

What changed things was this map I had received from the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer in Seattle, on which he had plotted where the toys had been found and where he predicted the toys would likely go. And having that map, I started imagining a journey and what it would have been like to go to all the places they’d gone to.

This idea of following a trail just captured my imagination.

M: Speaking of following a trail, you book takes us through seven searches for the elusive Floatee toys, where you travel around the world (to China, Alaska, Hawaii and even the open ocean) on your hunt for them. What was the best and worst part of the whole experience?

H: The most exhilarating trip was one of the least important ones, which was to the Labrador Sea with scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, hunting for underwater storms. I enjoyed it so much, partly because the scientists were so generous with their time, and because I felt every day was an education.

The best part was getting to deploy the instrumented mooring off the coast of Greenland as a storm was blowing. But, when we released this enormous yellow sphere that was the float keeping the mooring upright under water … it was exhilarating!

There were moments in every single trip that felt just like that.

The worst moment was not at sea but when I was stuck in Pusan, South Korea waiting for my ship to come in. Being in a lonely hotel room after many weeks away, for days on end in a country with nothing to think about, was far more tedious and home sickening than the sea faring.

M: The environmental impact of plastics is a significant theme of your book. Can you explain why plastics are so bad for the environment and why you think they are so pervasive in our society?

H: The simple answer is that plastic is simply designed to be thrown away and engineered to last. And I hope that it comes through in the book, as it is a complicated question.

One of the things I increasingly appreciated was that the powerful images of plastics accumulating at sea or on shores by the ton (in some of the places I visited). And there are obvious measurable impacts on marine mammals that get entangled, as well as sea turtles and sea birds eating the stuff.

I took to heart something said by a wildlife biologist I spoke to in Hawaii; Beth Flint, said, "Be careful. As striking as the images of plastics are, there are more invisible impacts that demand attention."

Plastics, I think, are useful in this measure because we can’t see greenhouse gases that are absorbed by the oceans, and you can’t see PCBs, DDT, or agricultural runoff. So, plastics can act as a bellwether.

M: Did you expect that your book would be more than just a tale of plastic animals, and instead deal with the overall state of the oceans and touch on a wide variety of scientific disciplines?

H: Early on, no. I meant to write it in the third person and just tell the story in as much detail as I could, but I did not expect it to be such a work of science writing. It didn’t take long before I realized it had to be that way for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the subject matter of ocean currents turned out to be much more complicated, but also much more fascinating, than I initially thought. And then, I tried to answer the question of: Where did the toys go, where are they now and what are the consequences of being in the North Pacific?

I had to follow those questions, which lead very quickly to the chemistry, and that plastics tend to absorb the pollutants that are out there. So, to answer that, you have to first understand the chemistry, biology, and their impact on the food web.

M: In your book, you spend a lot of time discussing the history of the rubber duck. You even say that they almost represent a vision of childhood. Was that why the story stuck with you for so long?

H: Yeah, and I’m not alone! Obviously I’m alone in quitting my job and spending a number of years travelling the Northern hemisphere. But, it obviously had appeal because it kept returning to these newspapers year after year.

The clipping that my student found first appeared in 2003 when they were supposed to arrive in New England, and again after I had begun my own ‘duckie’ hunting, in 2007, when they were supposed to arrive in England. They really lit up the tabloids!

The Sunday Times did a cover story; the Daily Mail covered it in their own particular way by announcing the arrival of Drake’s armada – it’s almost become a kind of modern fable. And elements of the story have been told and retold in newspapers that are fable, not fact. And so, it made me curious to figure out why.

The answers for me that were the most satisfying, that everything the toys represent: the icons of childhood, these yellow duckies, everything they represent contradicts all of our associations with the ocean, as they are a vision of childhood and innocent, and slightly less than human in kind of a noble savage way.

So, I think that all of those conventions of thinking about childhood are influenced in the popularity of the yellow duck, as does, of course, the celebrity of Ernie’s rubber ducky from Sesame Street.

M: You often make reference in your book to Moby Dick as you hunt for your quarry (the Floatees). Do you relate to Ahab or Ismael in your personal quest?

H: People assume that if you are obsessed you have to be Ahab. But, the honest answer is Ishmael, as he is a schoolteacher who lives in Manhattan at the beginning of the book. He too is fascinated by the idea of the whale. That idea of the whale is what makes the floodgates of the wonder swing open.

Ishmael is hunting after the white whale too, but not with a harpoon. He is hunting it through swimming through libraries and trying to reckon what it means.

So, I think the short answer is more with Ishmael, and the way I thought it was that through my journey I encountered a series of Ahab’s. They were actually undertaking endeavors; they were the actors in this story.

Like Chris Pallister, who I met in Alaska, and was hell-bent and obsessed with removing tons of flotsam from the Alaskan wilderness, even if it took helicopters and barges to do so. He was an Ahab figure for me.

M: When you roughly followed the path of the ship, the Ever Laurel, you describe how you expected an almost euphoric moment. But, you felt almost nothing. Why do you think that was?

H: Honestly, it was almost a sense of loss.

For me, the journey was following the trail of where they went. But, it was also an attempt to connect the past with the present and future. In a way, the whole thing began out of a desire to make what had become a fable into something real.

By then I had been travelling for a number of years, and I got out there and tried to picture the scene of the accident when the containers fell overboard. And I came within a few hundred miles of the spill, and yet it became clear that there was no way to imagine it as clearly as I had wanted. So, inevitably it was doomed to always remain imaginary. That was part of what the sense of loss was.

But, by then in the journey, I had learned so much from that initial story that had enchanted me that by then I had become disillusioned. And all of those moments came to heel at one of the main destinations that I had tried to reach for all those years.

And yet, all that there was was an empty ocean.

M: You describe how you had a rubber duck, but didn’t throw it into the ocean. Why not?

H: I really wanted to! I actually tried to find a wooden one to throw when I was in China.

Even though it would have been an infinitesimal contribution to ocean pollution, I had spent so much time trying to think about the consequences of plastic pollution, it would have been likely regrettable if I had chucked it overboard.

And I knew that I would have to write about it in the book, and that I would have had to be honest. So, I resisted it.

And, it is against the law after all!

Though, I am still not sure if it was the right call. I think it almost would have been worth it. And if I had had a biodegradable yellow duck, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

M: Instead, you drew a picture of a duck on a piece of paper and let it go, almost as a prayer.

H: Yeah, it felt like it really was the middle of nowhere. It was an almost arbitrary place, and no real way to recognize it other than its longitude and latitude. But, like a pilgrim, I had come all this way.

I felt it needed some kind of a consecration. So, instead of throwing the actual toy, I settled for a drawing and writing a phrase from Moby Dick: "God keep thee. Thou cans’t never return," which was as much my sentiment at the time as anything.

M: In the course of your journey, how many of the Floatees did you manage to find?

H: Of the actual 28,800 that spilled from the ship, I came home with two in my possession: A hollow red plastic beaver that I found in the lee of a spruce tree in the Alaskan wilderness, and on that same trip, one of the people I was travelling with gave me a hollow plastic duck. He was just 10 feet ahead of me, and I almost got there first. But, he was kind enough to give it to me.

The beaver, I sent to an environmental chemist, and she cut it up and put it in her Mass Spectrometer. It detected traces of PHH compound and other environmental pollutants that had been absorbed into the plastic.

And the duck, which was already cracked when it washed up on that beach in Alaska, was thin, bleached and growing brittle from photodegradation, I put it in my freezer to see what would happen. It grew more brittle still, and has subsequently lost its head and begun to disintegrate.

It is actually still there, in my freezer in New York.

M: Your book was written in a very stream of consciousness and train of thought style. Why did you decide to write and structure your book in that way?

H: There are sections of it when I step back and am much more the reporter, when I am covering the action of other people.

In a way, I have to come back to Moby Dick. I wanted it to be like that novel – both a narrative of a journey and chronicling the people I meet along the way.

It is also kind of a journey of the mind, where you are trying to make sense of what you are witnessing. There are places where I digress into thinking of the meaning of following the toys, and like currents, you become entangled in their trail and the questions within.

M: I like how your son acted almost as a bookend in the book. You begin with wanting to get home in time for his birth, and at the end of the book you return home and take him out.

H: I knew early on that the book would have to deal with childhood. And because my very first expedition coincided with the birth of my son, rather than use that timing as an obstacle, it seemed germane to what I was writing about.

The book was also a way to think about fatherhood and childhood.

I’ve read Moby Dick many times, but it was only when I was writing the book that I read the biography of Melville, that I learned that he became a father when writing it. And there are subtle references to him being a father, if you’re really looking for it.

M: Now that Moby-Duck is out and completed, what’s next? Will you be going on another epic quest?

H: [Laughs] For the sake of my wife and kids, not one quite so epic as the last. I don’t think I’m going to travel all across the Northern hemisphere aboard boats and ships.

I’ve just begun talking with my publisher about a second book, and we’ve got a couple of different ideas. There will, inevitably, be things that are similar.

Every time I write about non-fiction, there is a chance in getting an education. So, I will do that again.

But, I think I am done for now with sea faring and certainly with bath toys!

M: Thank you very much, and I look forward to your next book.

H: Thank you.

Image Credits: Garbage on Gor Point, courtesy of Donovan Hohn; Donovan Hohn, courtesy of Beth Chimera; The Floatees, courtesy of Beth Chimera.

About the Author: David Manly is a Canadian freelance science journalist who holds degrees in Biology and Zoology, as well as a Masters of Journalism. Having worked in a lab, he now spends time writing about the wondrous world of animals for Lab Spaces, as well as for his own blog The Definitive Host, and you can always find him on Twitter (@davidmanly). His fascination with reptiles and amphibians stems from visiting his local museum as a child and staring at dinosaur bones for hours on end, transfixed. Now, all those years later, that feeling still is as present as ever.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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