THE CONVERGENCE ZONES of the world’s oceans (or world ocean, since they are all one) are vast areas at the middle of the great oceanic circulatory patterns known as gyres. In these regions, large plastic objects — vinyl buoys, polystyrene coolers, oil drums, two-liter Coke bottles, half-liter water bottles, polypropylene rope, nylon gill nets, and broken-off monofilament longlines — accumulate and litter the surface for millions of square miles. More insidious are the microplastics that float unseen on the surface, breaking into ever-smaller pieces but never fully biodegrading, to be consumed by pelagic seabirds and fish or simply resting on the surface in greater quantities than the plankton. By now, legions of scientists, travelers, sailors, and environmentalists have written about the accumulation of plastics in the convergence zones, but perhaps because of the remoteness of the subject, not much is being done about it.
Donovan Hohn’s new book, 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, is the most recent contribution to this ongoing story, and it is a quirky, energetic, and engrossing one. Hohn tells the tale of a container ship that, in high seas, spilled the eponymous rubber duckies, which then circulated around the Pacific and in so doing taught us a good deal about how the oceans work and what humans are doing to them. Hohn became obsessed — not too strong a word, as you’ll see if you read the book — by this episode and dedicated his life to learning more about it. Part first-person travel narrative and part amateur inquiry into oceanography, the economics of intermodal containerization, and marine policy, Moby-Duck is modeled somewhat facetiously on Herman Melville’s great epistemological inquiry-cum-critique of the human assault on nature. Hohn conjoins memoir with science writing in an epic tale of travel, disaster, and mismanagement.
At many points, Hohn’s narrative seems less authoritative than quixotic, the author’s willingness to chase his story to the far corners of the oceans resembling the mad hidalgo’s tilts more than Ahab’s bloody quest. Yet Hohn’s willingness to offer himself as a human subject in the midst of a vast experiment in marine science and environmental ethics makes for engaging reading, and his writing is rarely dull. “Let’s draw a bath,” he writes. “Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart?” Hohn adopts the voice of a manic latter-day Ishmael drawn to the sea not by the suicidal “hypos” of a nineteenth-century melancholic so much as a lifelong empathy for suffering animals. We learn that there is a family history behind Hohn’s identification with the neglected and mistreated marine life that our plastic detritus profoundly affects, and we discover that his passages are intended as an act of healing.
Readers interested in Moby-Duck might also want to check out Sylvia Earle’s Sea Change; Richard Ellis’s Tuna: Love, Death, and Mercury; The Outlaw Sea, by William Langewiesche; The Last Fish Tale, by Mark Kurlansky; and Great Waters: An Atlantic Passage, by Deborah Cramer. Next to these, Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck is the highly personal odyssey of an amateur oceanographer who has taken remarkable pains to witness first-hand the state of the global ocean.