Few things inspire wonder like seeing something out of its element: Christmas lights on a cactus, a flag on the moon or a yellow rubber duck floating in the middle of the ocean.
This incongruity captivates writer Donovan Hohn, who decides to go looking for 28,800 bath toys 13 years after they were lost at sea during a cargo container spill in 1992. For years, remnants of the spill—red beavers, blue turtles, green frogs and yellow ducks—have been washing up on the U.S. west coast to the delight of local beachcombers. Hohn goes in search of these tennis ball-sized toys and discovers a wealth of environmental woes that plague these seemingly innocuous Floatees.
As Hohn hops on a boat headed to Gore Point, Alaska, a cape where several bath toys have been found, the ship’s captain, Chris Pallister, says the plastic animals are often toxic.
Plastic collects persistent organic pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and bisphenol A that are "surprisingly abundant at the ocean’s surface," says Pallister, the founder of GoAK, an environmental non-profit in Alaska.
"Even in the U.S., where they’ve been banned, PCBs continue to leach from dumps—on coastlines, on abandoned military bases in the Aleutians—into the watershed." An environmental toxicologist tests a red plastic beaver Hohn finds and reports that the toy has absorbed 12 different PCBs.
"No one knows exactly how many marine mammals and sea turtles and seabirds die when they entangle themselves in debris or ingest it," Hohn writes. "One widely cited if dubiously round estimate puts the toll of casualties at 100,000 animals a year."
Hohn is surprised and conflicted about the environmental responses to such tragedies. He learns that even environmental efforts to clean up trashed beaches are convoluted and wrought with greenwashing. Hohn talks to a former marine biologist for the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup who admits the cleanup "has never been about curing the problem of marine debris." It’s always been "a public awareness campaign."
The harm caused by the toy ducks contrasts greatly with their embodiment of innocence, childhood and the world of make believe, all of which Hohn avidly documents. He traces the rubber duck’s history: from its original use in keeping young boys from self-stimulation in the bath tub to its massive popularity after it appeared as Ernie’s sidekick on Sesame Street.
Like a private investigator, Hohn follows the Floatees "footsteps" with unrelenting passion. From China, to Hawaii to Alaska and Maine, he braves ocean storms, tests his fear of sharks and battles seasickness all to "to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why."
Unfortunately, Hohn’s narrative feels just as nebulous as the ducks’ journey. Hohn repeatedly wonders what he’s doing on this quest and his fear of almost everything makes him a deflated an uninspiring narrator: "I am an exceptionally fearful person, ill-suited to the role of journalist or adventurer."
And though he touts his encyclopedic knowledge of ocean gyres and organic geochemistry, making multiple references to outside sources on every page (not to mention the paragraph-long endnotes at the back of the book), it gets him no closer to a denouement: "the world still makes little sense, no matter how much I study it."
Hohn, a former high school English teacher, also tries to make connections between his trek and the canonical Moby Dick. "I opened my notebook. What to write? I should have prepared something! ‘Fare thee well,’ I began, then scribbled it out remembering a line from Moby-Dick. ‘Good-bye, Moby Duck!’ I began again. "Thou cans’t never return! God keep thee!’ Writing this, I wasn’t even sure what I meant."
The story of an accidental container spill—actually a very common occurrence (nearly 10,000 spills occur each year)—fails to provide the emotional and intellectual depth as Melville’s classic adventure.
While a 12 page New Yorker piece about bath toys lost at sea would have thrilled and caused a sense of awe, when Hohn stretches the story to 400 exhausting pages, the magic disappears.
By the end of the book, I wonder what the point is. Hohn doesn’t discover anything new so much as he points out facts that environmentalists and oceanographers have known for decades: that there are floating masses of trash in the ocean, that America’s conspicuous consumption isn’t sustainable and that tracing ocean pollution back to its source is extremely difficult. His lack of any real discovery is perplexing in a book that purports to be about a veritable maritime treasure hunt.
Hohn poses great questions: "who if anyone could he held accountable for all that plastic trash? What did it really forebode—for us, for the sea?" But he provides few answers.
With Hohn unable to address the poignant questions he raises—admitting that he still feels "lost,"—the book ends with the reader feeling utterly alone and completely awash in a sea of unanswered questions.
Related at Scientific American:
Slabs, Sneakers, Gyres and the Grotesque By Matthew Garcia
Overboard: 28,000 toys and one man, lost at sea By Lindsey Hoshaw
A True Duck Hunt: interview with Donovan Hohn By David Manly
How does a floating plastic duckie end up where it does? By Eric Heupel
About the Author: Lindsey Hoshaw is a freelance environmental journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Forbes, among others. In her spare time she moonlights as a garbologist studying people and the things they throw away. Follow her on Twitter @thegarbagegirl.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.