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

Donovan Hohn

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
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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

Donovan Hohn

When the writer Donovan Hohn heard of the mysterious loss of thousands of bath toys at sea, he figured he would interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, and read up on Arctic science and geography. ‘But questions can be like ocean currents: wade in too far, and they carry you away.’ Hohn’s accidental odyssey pulls him into the secretive world of shipping conglomerates, the daring work of Arctic researchers, the lunatic risks of maverick sailors, and the shadowy world of Chinese toy factories. Moby-Duck is a journey into the heart of the sea and an adventure through science, myth, the global economy, and some of the worst weather imaginable. With each new discovery, Hohn learns of another loose thread, and with each successive chase, he comes closer to understanding where his castaway quarry comes from and where it goes. In the grand tradition of Tony Horwitz and David Quammen, Moby-Duck is a compulsively readable narrative of whimsy and curiosity.

Review

Donovan Hohn, a former English teacher, became interested in the fate of a shipping container of plastic bath toys that was washed overboard in the Pacific Ocean while marking an essay written by one of his high school students. He had asked his students to practise the ‘archaeology of the ordinary’ and one had written about a toy duck he carried with him for good luck. While researching the essay the student had come across a newspaper article about the 1992 container spill. This was 2005 and the essay reported that the toys were supposed to have reached the coast of New England by 2003. The essay did not mention whether or not the toys made it to the Atlantic Ocean and Hohn found himself pondering their fate. ‘I pictured the ducks afloat like yellow pixels on the vast, gray acreage of the waves… skiing down the glassy scopes of fifty-foot swells, or coasting on through the Arctic on floes of ice’.

Hohn quit his teaching job and decided to follow the trail of the bath toys. The adventure spans from a factory in China to a ride on a container ship and a visit to a beachcombers fair in Alaska, as well as a number of other expeditions with scientists, oceanographers and environmentalists.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Hohn acknowledges that he is ‘an essayist first, a journalist second’ and Moby Duck is perhaps at its most interesting when he is contemplating notions such as the ‘borderline between the natural and the man-made’. Hohn is entranced by the cultural symbolism of yellow duck and, as the title suggests, he is also a great admirer of Melville. This book doesn’t necessarily go where you think it might but it is a great reminder of both the power and the vulnerability of the world’s oceans.

Kara Nicholson is from Readings Carlton

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