Can you remember what you were doing on 10th January 1992? I was in Tasmania celebrating my birthday. I can't remember if I was still travelling around at that stage being the tourist or whether I was by then ensconced in a very nice B&B in Hobart, attending an amazing music education conference. Obviously the birthday celebration wasn't a high point of the day. But I was definitely in Tasmania.
It turns out that on that very day a sea container fell off the back of a ship during high seas in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Evidently not an unusual event. Apparently between 2000 and 10 000 containers fall off their ships into the ocean every year. That particular container held 28,800 bath toys - beavers, frogs, turtles and duckies - 7,200 of each. The sea container burst open, the boxes of bath toys tumbled out and the cardboard packaging deteriorated, liberating all of those toys that had been designed to float. Evidently ocean currents follow reasonably steady and predictable courses and there are certain points on the globe, little bays here and there, that act somewhat like terminus points - or rather gathering points - for tons and tons of rubbish/flotsam picked up along the way. And so a year or two later, these bath toys started showing up, some in odd places, but others en masse at these bays-cum-accidental rubbish tips.
Donovan Hohn, a high school english teacher from Manhattan with just a touch of Indiana Jones in his makeup, first heard about these bath toys bobbing in the seas and floating across the oceans of the world as he read about it in a student's essay. He was charmed and thus began an adventure, over a series of five chases, that saw him follow the path of the rubber ducks from production in a chinese toy factory through the journey on a container ship to what should have been their proper destination. He didn't do it all in order, but over the course of a number of years, he covered the route the ducks should have taken from the chinese toy factory to its US port and the route that at least some of the ducks took when they jumped ship to their final destination at one of the so called Garbage Patches, far from any US port.
Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea is his story. And what a story it is. Along the way I learned about...
oceans and oceanography,
the difference between environmentalism and conservation,
how some of the things we do in the name of environmentalism are in fact of no help at all, and can sometimes even be counterproductive,
environmentalism being a hugely complex issue,
the shipping industry and all sorts of conditions at sea and all sorts of conditions on all sorts of ships and boats at sea,
lots of ways to be horribly cold, uncomfortable and sick at sea,
toys, childhood and being a parent,
...and about our very sad, destructive addiction to plastic.
The very features that make plastic a perfect material for bathtub toys - so buoyant! so pliant! so smooth! so colourful! so hygienic! - also make it a superlative pollutant of the seas. No one knows exactly how long a synthetic polymer will persist at sea. Five hundred years is a reasonable guess. Globally, we are currently producing 300 million tons of plastic every year, and no known organism can digest a single molecule, through plenty of organisms try. (Last paragraph of the fourth chase.p. 190 )
By now, if you are even still reading, you are probably wondering how I came upon this book and why I read it. The thing is, I heard Donovan Hohn interviewed on the radio and he was engaging, articulate and entertaining. A natural and brilliant story teller. He would surely be able to write well. And he was, after all, an english teacher.
Well, write he can. You may have absolutely no interest in any of these subjects. I didn't. Which is to my shame. But Donovan Hohn has managed to turn that crazy mixture of subject matter, along with the whimsical idea of a rubber duck lost at sea, into an absolute page turner. He writes beautifully and has an extraordinary command of the english language. Moreover he is a teacher through and through. He will throw out a bit of jargon, a scientific concept, something the average person knows nothing about and you think, "Mmmm...don't know what he's talking about there." And he knows you don't know. So just around the next corner (be it a paragraph, page or section) you find yourself in the middle of the explanation.
This book is worth reading for three reasons.
Firstly, for the beauty of the writing and the joy of the story.
Secondly, to educate. At so many levels. About interesting stuff. But also about important stuff.
And thirdly, to find out if he made it back in time from one of his chases to be present at the birth of his first child (he knew, when he set off, that it would be tight) and if, in the course of his chases, he found for himself one of 28, 800 bath toys, having so carefully traced their route.
A great book.