In January 1992 a container filled with 7,200 yellow ducks and the same number each of blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs, blow-moulded out of plastic for American children at bathtime, broke loose in a storm on the deck of a container ship on its way from China and fell into the Pacific somewhere south of the Aleutian Islands.
The container ruptured, the boxes soaked away and 11 months later the Floatees — the name was embossed on each — began to be noticed washing up among the bottle caps and Japanese fishing floats on the shores of the Gulf of Alaska, sparking a flutter of news stories. The stories were still going 11 years later when a single yellow floaty duck made by the same Massachusetts company was sighted on the coast of Maine.
A barnacle-encrusted toy found on the coast of Devon also made headlines, but probably wasn’t the right kind of duck.
Whatever gave this story such an extended news lifetime evidently captured the imagination of Donovan Hohn, a former English teacher, now Features Editor of American GQ. The upshot is this archly titled book. Hohn sets out to explain how the ducks came to be shipwrecked, and where they were carried on the ocean currents, by setting out in pursuit. His quest has an Ahab-like folly about it because, after journeying for thousands of miles, he finds no toys anywhere, other than those washed up on Alaskan coasts already deep in thousands of tons of litter. He crosses the North West Passage without meeting a single plastic beaver.
As he travels around the Pacific, Hohn writes what is nearly a very good book about the plague of plastics pollution. This, he admits, is scarcely one of the world’s greatest problems, but it is one we still haven’t the foggiest how to solve. It is not just aesthetic. Not only do plastics kill wildlife — on the Hawaiian islands a single Laysan albatross chick was found with 252 items of plastic in its gut — but they stick to (or ‘adsorb’) many kind of persistent toxic chemicals such as PCBs.
Hohn sails through the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, ‘a purgatorial eddy’ the size of a continent, with an environmentalist called Charles Moore. The net Moore tows through the middle of the Pacific 800 miles from the mainland produces a particle of plastic waste in every bathful of water.
Hohn also hangs out in Alaska with conservationists who devote time to clearing places such as Gore Point — one of the remotest spots on the American mainland — of its banks of Styrofoam, cigarette filters, fishing gear and tyres, only to see more wash in on the next tide. Sarah Palin vetoed a grant to these public-spirited folk on the grounds that the pollution did not come from America.
Hohn seems to have taken the cue for his travels from the Seattle-based retired oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmayer, who predicted that the ducks would float round the top of the American continent, but who may have been wrong. Hohn’s journey begins in the birthplace of many of America’s toys, the plastics factories of the Pearl River Delta (which flows into the South China Sea); he then sails back across the Pacific to understand how a 900-foot container ship could act as if possessed in some of the world’s roughest waters. The most descriptive word for these 50-100-foot waves, Hohn decides, is German: Monsterwellen.
Most of this is fine, well-written travelogue. Hohn is a good companion, a self-deprecating, likeable individual with a propensity to be seasick and a very sensible fear of deep blue water and sharks. But a book one thought was a whimsical discourse on the state of the oceans in the age of plastic waste and PCBs bounds off at the end into an unsatisfactory reflection on fatherhood.
It is also much too long; and Hohn’s editors should have dealt with his habit of quoting from everything he has read, including Conrad and Melville on the sea, and John Berger and Roland Barthes on the aesthetics of plastic. Hohn has the kind of self-absorbed style the New York Times tends to review reverentially; but most Brits will pinch themselves to be reading a book this length about plastic ducks.