In 1992, a cargo ship container tumbled into the North Pacific, dumping 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys that were headed from China to the U.S. Currents took them, and news reports said some may have eventually reached Maine and other shores on the Atlantic.
Thirteen years later, journalist Donovan Hohn undertook a mission: He wanted to track the movements of the wayward ducks, from the comfort of his own living room.
"I figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk."
But Hohn's research led him on an odyssey that took him from Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii — and then onto China and the Arctic. He details the journey — via plane, foot and container ship — in 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.
Some of the ducks, says Hohn, made their way to the coast of Gore Point, Alaska, a remote isthmus at the southern tip of Kachemak Bay State Park. Hohn obtained his own rubber duck after visiting the isthmus with the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a group of conservationists who wanted to clean up the debris along the coast.
"They set out on a pretty heroic undertaking, because to get this [ocean debris] out of the wilderness required 2 to 3 months of people camping and packing [the debris] up in a bag, and eventually an airlift," he says. "But while I was out there with them, toys were found. I found a plastic beaver. And another beachcomber found a duck and had mercy — he gave it to me."
The Plague Of Plastic In The Ocean
While tracking down the path of the rogue ducks, Hohn also confronted the plague of accumulating plastics in the ocean.
"When I set out following these toys, I didn't expect it to turn into an environmental story, but I very quickly learned ... that unlike the flotsam of ages past, the flotsam of today — much of it plastic — persists," he says. "It lasts visibly for decades and chemically for centuries because it doesn't biodegrade."
There are certain parts of the ocean where currents converge and spiral inward, collecting what's floating on the surface, Hohn says. Called convergence zones or "garbage patches," these parts of the ocean contain trash, plastic and toys — whatever happens to get sucked in while floating past.
"When I first heard the phrase 'garbage patch,' I imagined something dense," he says. "I initially imagined it as a floating junkyard, and you'd have to poke your way through it with a paddle if you're in a kayak. But it's not like that. You can't take a picture of it because that doesn't exist. What does exist is a whole lot of plastic out there, but it's spread out over millions of miles of ocean. And some of it floats on the surface where you can find it. And some of it floats just below the surface. And eventually all of it will photodegrade, so much of it is so small you're not going to be able to see it with the naked eye."
These tiny pieces of plastic — and substances that adhere to the plastics — can then enter the food chain.
"We know that in the marine food web, there is an alarmingly elevated contaminant burden in species at the top of the food web," he says. "What role plastic plays in that is an ongoing area of study."
On the importance of beachcombers
"There are people who do beachcombing for different reasons, but there's a community — a bit like avid bird-watchers — for whom it is more than just a pleasurable recreational thing to do when you go to the seashore. [For them] it's a hobby and a hunt. [There's a magazine] called Beachcombers Alert [that] puts the beachcombers on alert for Nikes or whatever — because there was a spill that's been reported — and then people go out and find them. So you not only have the thrill of discovering a surprise or treasure, but you also have the chance of, like on a scavenger hunt, finding something that you're looking for that actually might serve some scientific purpose."
On the importance of the spills to the scientific community
"They do show us something. The currents have been compared to rivers in the sea, but ocean currents don't flow like rivers between two banks — they meander [and] they change seasonally and are, in a way, more mysterious than one might think. They're almost comparable to the wind the way that they move and the way that they vary. By following flotsam spills, you do have useful data to show us the movement of the currents and how they change."
On the worst shipping container disaster in modern history
"[A ship named APL China] was traveling from Far East to the Pacific Northwest [in 1998] and it lost 407 containers overboard in a single night [after a possible typhoon]. The photographs that were taken when it was in port are pretty dramatic. ... This ship came in and it looked ravaged. Most of the rows of containers had toppled like dominoes. Some of them had been pancaked flat by the ones on top of them. Some containers were just missing — swept overboard. So it was a ruin when it staggered into port." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
What happens when 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys are accidentally dumped in the ocean? Where do the ocean currents take them, and what environmental impact do the ducks and other ocean junk have on the seas?
That's what our guest Donovan Hohn investigates in his new book "Moby-Duck." The ducks ended up in the ocean instead of the bath in 1992, when a ship container headed from China to the U.S. tumbled into the North Pacific. The ducks were swept away by currents, and news reports said some may have actually reached Maine and other shores on the Atlantic.
Hohn tracked their movements, and his book is an odyssey that takes him from Seattle to Alaska to Hawaii to China and the Arctic. Along the way, he researches and ruminates on subjects of science and industry, wilderness and civilization. He confronts the plague of accumulating plastics in the ocean and the difficulty of addressing the problem.
Donovan Hohn is a journalist whose work has appeared in Harper's, the New York Times magazine and Outside. He's now a features editor at GQ. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
Here's Hohn reading from the beginning of his book, explaining how consuming it was to follow the story of the rubber ducks.
Mr. DONOVAN HOHN (Author, Journalist): (Reading) At the outset, I figured I'd interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories.
And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.
But questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents: wade in a little too far, and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry, and it will lead you to another and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know, you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep.
You're wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it's like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You're marveling at the scale of humanity's impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You're giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Donovan Hohn, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Let's just begin at the beginning, here. These 28,000 toys, they're ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs, right? They go into the drink in a storm in the North Pacific in January, 1992, when a container falls off a vessel. And then where and when do people begin finding them?
Mr. HOHN: It's the following year, in late summer, autumn of 1993, in Sitka, Alaska, which is down in the Alaskan panhandle near the inside passage. And for a couple-hundred-mile stretch of shoreline, people who went out to the beach were finding hundreds of them, these toys.
DAVIES: Now, the loss of containers at sea is not so uncommon. But you tell us in the book that shipping companies don't particularly like to talk about them. There are liability issues and all. But you met a beachcomber, this guy Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Do I have the name right?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah, yeah. Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Yeah.
DAVIES: And he actually manages to figure out exactly where the mishap actually occurred. And how did he do it?
Mr. HOHN: Well, he's a trained oceanographer, professional oceanographer who, in his semi-retirement and retirement, became kind of a professional beachcomber, as you say, and partly just out of - as a hobby, out of curiosity, began studying flotsam, but then took it seriously and started using container spills as accidental drift experiments. And the key piece of information he needed for the flotsam to become actual data was the point at which they started.
So he managed to persuade - in some cases, not all - shipping lines or companies that had lost cargo, such as Nike, to reveal that the spill had occurred and divulge information of the points on latitude and longitude where the spill occurred. And then you have a point A. And if you make contact with the beachcombers who find them - which Curt Ebbesmeyer has gotten good at doing - or with lighthouse keepers, who are out there looking all the time, then you've got point B. And you can follow where the flotsam has traveled, which show you where the currents flow.
DAVIES: But he also manages to nail down the exact latitude and longitude of when the storm cast this massive ship container overboard. How did he do that?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah, I mean, for the beginning, the very, the first - when I first set out researching the book, in some ways, I was following in his footsteps for the first chapter or so. And he, through appeals to and phone calls to the shipping company - whose name he didn't want to tell me. It was a secret, but I eventually figured it out, which was the Evergreen Shipping Line.
DAVIES: And how did he figure out what shipping company?
Mr. HOHN: How did I, or he?
DAVIES: How did he? Yeah.
Mr. HOHN: You know, that's a - you know, that's a - that was - that's a good question. He managed to get it, I think, through the toy company, the -identify which ship it would've been on. And he also kept contacts down at the Port of Tacoma, near Seattle.
So once he'd identified the shipping line, and it took him a while to persuade them, but they - they're afraid of bad publicity or lawsuits. Once he convinced them that he was purely interested in it for scientific reasons, they let him onboard the ship, and he met the ship's captain who had been at the helm the night of this toy spill.
And the captain opened up the log book and discreetly pointed to the appropriate entry, and there were the coordinates where the spill occurred: 44.7 degrees north, 178.1 degrees east, which is right near the International Date Line. It's just south of the Aleutians.
DAVIES: And you note that you spent a fair amount of time with this beachcomber community. They're not just looking for shiny coins and shells. I mean, they're kind of detectives, aren't they?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah, well, they're - you know, there are people who do beachcombing for different reasons. But there is a community, a bit like avid bird-watchers, for whom it's more than just a pleasurable recreational thing to do when you go to the seashore, for whom it's a hobby and a hunt.
And one of the things Ebbesmeyer has done is he puts this newsletter together, and it's a way of - it's called Beachcombers Alert for a reason. And he puts the beachcombers who have subscribed on alert to watch for Nikes, because there was a spill that's been reported, or whatever. And then people go out and hunt and find them.
So you not only have the thrill of discovering a surprise, a treasure, a mystery. You also have the chance of - almost like on a scavenger hunt, finding something that you're looking for that actually might serve some scientific purpose.
DAVIES: And does it contribute to anything of importance scientifically?
Mr. HOHN: You know, it's - there - yes and no. So the - he's done a couple of different studies published in Eos - a very respected scientific journal -about the spills. And they do show us something.
They do show - the currents - people - they've been called at various points, compared to rivers in the sea. But ocean currents don't flow like rivers between two banks. They meander. They change seasonally, and, in a way, are more mysterious than one might think.
They almost - they're almost more comparable to the wind, the way that they move and the way that they vary. So by following flotsam spills, you do have useful data to show us the movement of the currents and as they change.
The reason why I qualify that a little is many of the oceanographers I spoke to pointed out that there's a big missing part. You've got point A, where the spill occurred, points B where the beachcombers find them, but you don't really know what's happened in between.
So most oceanographers now use more state-of-the-art flotsam - basically, the kind of robotic drones, floats that can surface and transmit data via satellite. And they have a lot more information from that kind of device.
The problem is those are expensive, and there are places in the ocean - for instance, the icebound parts of the Arctic - where those instruments are very difficult to deploy.
So there is - one of the oceanographers I traveled with who does focus on the Arctic is using the old, 19th-century oceanographic method of putting messages in bottles. So flotsam still has some scientific value.
DAVIES: Right. And when you were on this research vessel, you were actually, what - were they literally beer bottles you were tossing into the ocean with a note?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Yeah. He recruited - there was a - he managed to get a Nova Scotian teenager who was an oceanographic enthusiast and spent three weeks of her summer putting messages, scrolling up messages, putting them in beer bottles from a local Canadian brewery and corking them up and sealing them with wax. And we threw hundreds of these into the Northwest Passage.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Donovan Hohn. His new book is "Moby-Duck." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Donovan Hohn. His book is called "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."
All right. Let's talk about kind of the beginning of the story, and that is the loss of this container over the side of this vessel in the North Pacific. You kind of reenacted every part of the ducks' journey. And at some point you took a ride on a container ship from Korea to, what, Seattle, right?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah.
DAVIES: Just give us a sense of the scale of these vessels and the containers they carry.
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, they're hundreds of feet long. They can - the most modern ones are post-Panamax, meaning they're too big to go through the Panama Canal. The one that I rode on was more than 900 feet long. So they're colossal. They can fit inside them - their hulls, the largest ones - Chartres Cathedral and Grand Central Station combined.
And when you're standing beside them on the dock, their hulls really feel like it's a palisade of steel, a great cliff rising up from the ocean. So they're -they're the mightiest, you know, cargo vessels out there.
And I think one of the things that got me interested in this story was I hadn't heard that containers spill from ships, and it seemed to me incredible, frankly. I thought those things were indestructible and mysterious, and I wanted to learn: What could it possibly take to make 12 containers fall overboard from one of those giants?
DAVIES: Right, and part of the answer is that while many are stowed below deck, they're stacked, what, how high on the main deck?
Mr. HOHN: Typically, they're in stacks of six. The - it varies because it turns out that stowing containers is a science and an art, that they have to balance everything just right. Otherwise, it can affect the way the ship rolls and moves in waters.
But typically, they'll be in stacks of six, and each container is typically 20 feet long. The long ones are 40-footers. They have refrigerated ones. So it's all about maximizing the capacity of these vessels to carry absolutely as much as they possibly can safely.
DAVIES: And I think you write, they are so large that they are more likely to sail through bad weathers than ships in the past, right?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah, this is true. This is - the ship that I traveled on, from Pusan to Seattle, followed very much in the same route, which is why I chose it, as the one that spilled the toys. And it was traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, taking what's called the Great Circle Route, just like airplanes follow the jet stream when you fly to Europe.
Because it's more efficient - you're using the shape of the globe to shorten the trip. But that region in the age of sail was known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It was renowned for its winter storms. And these ships - the companies that own them are confident enough now that they can survive all hazards of the weather, to paraphrase Conrad. And most of the time, they do.
The one I was on, it was actually a fairly tranquil journey, even though we went through some rough seas and some snowstorms south of the Aleutian. It rolled some. But on occasion, they can encounter dramatic, tempestuous seas, waves reaching heights of 50, 60, 70 feet, sometimes freakishly larger than that. So the seas are still as wild as ever.
DAVIES: So describe what are the conditions that would cause these ships to lose containers, and, if we know, what caused this one to go overboard.
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. That was one of the challenges. Evergreen does not particularly - I asked if I could ride on one of their ships, and they were reluctant, as are most companies now. And since most - it turns out that 12 containers overboard is a fairly small spill. So there's not going to be a lot of information in the public record.
I tried to get things through the Coast Guard, under the Freedom of Information Act. And there was a small inspection, but it just said that the ship was cleared to proceed from Tacoma after having survived this spill.
So 12 containers isn't enough to generate lots of information, and I, trying to answer that question, went to another accident that happened in 1998. And in monetary terms, this was the worst shipping disaster in history. It involved a ship called the APL China, once again traveling from the Far East to the Pacific Northwest.
And it lost 407 containers overboard in a single night, and the footage, the photographs that were taken when it arrived in port are pretty dramatic, these stacks that are...
DAVIES: Just describe what the ship looked like when it came to port. Yeah.
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, it came into, you know, these - when you see a ship - I grew up near the San Francisco Bay Area, and used to watch the container ships arriving under the Golden Gate Bridge, going to and from Alameda. And they're majestic and beautiful and picturesque and colorful.
And this ship came in, and it looked ravaged, where the - at the - most of the rows of containers had toppled like dominoes. And some of them had been pancaked flat by the ones on top of them. In one case, an entire row was missing, just swept overboard. So it was a ruin when it staggered into port in 1998.
And because of that - normally, when there's a loss of cargo at sea, everything is just settled out of court between cargo owners and shipping companies and underwriters. They anticipate - it's part of their insurance - that they can sustain a loss of something like 12 containers.
But in this case, with 407 gone, it managed to - it came to court in Manhattan. And so I went down to a Manhattan courthouse and pulled out all the files and got to see all the letters from all the different companies that had lost things overboard.
And it was - it was almost entertaining, because here was all the things that we regularly find in our stores, in our shopping malls, that is made in the Far East. There were clothes from most of the major clothing retailers, The Gap and J. Crew. There were wireless phones from Toshiba. They sustained a pretty heavy loss. There was seafood and furniture, Schwinn bicycles. And much of this was still among the ruins on the deck of the APL China. A bunch of it had gone overboard and was gone.
Also because that case was proceeding through the legal system - it was eventually settled - the lawyers defending APL, American President Lines, ended up doing scientific research, trying to figure - determine the cause of the spill. Was it the captain who was to blame? Was it human error? Was it somebody at the port stowing these containers? Or was it, as they say, an act of God, meaning beyond the control of the officers and crew of the ship?
And initially, they thought typhoon or perhaps a rogue wave, which scientists now know are very much for real and rear up out of nowhere. In this case, it turned out to be a less charismatic phenomenon than a rogue wave.
It turns out to be there's a kind of rolling that can occur under certain conditions, partly because of the shape of these enormous post-Panamax hulls, where...
DAVIES: That's synchronous roll, right, where something about the length of the ship corresponds to the gap of the waves?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Synchronous rolling is when the roll period - think of it almost - for me, it was useful to think of it almost like a metronome, ticking and tocking back and forth. And when the rolling of the ship is just in synch with the waves, it can steepen with every roll.
But in this case, it was - and officers, sailors, mariners are trained how to get out of that pattern, that cycle. You're supposed to heave to. You're supposed to turn your bow into the waves and break this cycle. And that's what, in fact, the captain of this ship, the APL China, did.
And yet his ship, the rolls continued to worsen. So it was actually a new kind of rolling called parametric rolling, and it had been documented under certain seas, but in order to prove that it was the cause, they went through elaborate experiments in a wave tank in the Netherlands the size of a swimming pool and managed to recreate the exact conditions.
They used historical weather data, all sorts of things. So it was actually -became a kind of fascinating science story, as well, that particular mystery to solve.
DAVIES: Now, in the case of the container that drives your quest, it was the ship the Ever Laurel.
Mr. HOHN: That's right.
DAVIES: And just - you - tell us what would have happened that day. I mean, what was in this container, and what would've happened as it tumbled into the sea?
Mr. HOHN: We know that it was - where it was. We know where it happened. We don't know whether it was day or night. We know that a ship in its vicinity faxed a weather report to the National Weather Service describing 36-foot-tall waves, which are pretty big.
And we know that it lost 12 containers. How did it lose them? Was it the lashing system was not - improperly lashed? Was it this - a phenomenon of rolling, like the one I described? Was it a freak wave? This is still unknown.
But in any event, they tumbled overboard. And if you look at these pictures from these other incidents, you can kind of imagine they crash into each other, they hit the rails as they go. And so this one that was carrying toys would have burst or buckled open in its fall, and then set adrift, initially, a bunch of cardboard boxes.
And the cardboard would have dissolved, and from the boxes would have come packages of bath toys.
DAVIES: And off they go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HOHN: And off they go.
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davis will continue his interview with Donovan Hohn in the second half of the show. Hohn's new book is called "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Donovan Hohn, author of the new book "Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."
The bath toys were dumped in the ocean in 1992 when a ship container on a vessel headed from China to the U.S. tumbled into the North Pacific. Hohn investigated the many places ocean currents carried these toys and how the toys became part of a huge collection of ocean junk.
DAVIES: A lot of the book deals with the plague of garbage in the ocean, particularly plastics. And there's a point where you went to Hawaii to see what's called the Pacific Garbage Patch for yourself. Do you want to just describe what you saw?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. I mean I didn't, when I set out following the toys, I didn't expect it to turn into an environmental story. But I very quickly learned that one of the - something I'd never heard of before, one of the differences about the ocean in the 21st century is that unlike the flotsam of ages past, the flotsam of today - much of it plastic - persists at sea. It lasts visibly for decades and chemically for centuries, because it doesn't biodegrade.
And there are certain parts of the ocean where currents converge, they spiral inward and collect what's floating on the surface. They're called convergence zones, which isn't as catchy a name, I suppose, for what this phenomenon has become know as, which is the garbage patch. And there are places all around the oceans of the world, wherever you have convergent currents, that collect floating trash, plastic, toys - whatever.
So initially, when I learned of this garbage patch, when I first heard that phrase I imagined something dense. You sometimes see it described as plastic island or a continent of plastic or I initially imagined it as a floating junkyard, and you'd have to poke your way through it with your paddle if you were in a kayak. And it's not like that. And you can't take a picture of it because that doesn't exist. What does exist, though, is a whole lot of plastic out there. It's just spread out over miles of ocean. And some of it floats on the surface where you can find it. And some of it floats just below the surface where it's hard to see. And then eventually, all of it will photodegrade -meaning it breaks down in sunlight. So much of it is so small you're not going to be able to see it easily with the naked eye. And really to find it on the ocean, you have to go trawling for it with nets because it eventually blows like dust through the air. It blows through the water column.
DAVIES: You describe the qualities of plastic polymers and the way other materials adhere to them. Explain what that process - and why it is important and harmful.
Mr. HOHN: It's potentially harmful. There's - we know, and this isn't something that's been known by chemists for a long time, that they even use plastic in the lab - to dip it into water to figure out how toxic it is, because there's certain substances - they have polysyllabic names, they're hydrophobic and lipophilic, meaning they don't like water and they like certain greasy substances, and they will adhere to plastics, plastics can soak them up like a sponge. And in the lab, that's a useful way to figure out what's in the water.
At sea, a lot of those pollutants, some of them are famous ones, industrial pollutants like PCBs and DDT, are adhering to what's floating around out there. The big question that remains is what happens next? We know that in the marine food web there is an elevated - an alarmingly elevated contaminant burden, they call it, in species at the top of the food web. So whales and sea birds, things that are feeding on everything below them, they accumulate in their fat, these toxins.
How plastic, what role plastic plays in that is an ongoing area of study. Is it concentrating the stuff and meaning that even more of these toxins are entering the food web? So it's an ongoing source of concern.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Donovan Hohn. He's written a story about a container load of bath toys that spilled in the North Pacific and then his quest to figure out what became of them. It's called "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."
Now, you actually got one of the ducks, and this was in Alaska, right, with this group that you visited, the Gulf of Alaska Keeper. Is this right?
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. That is right.
DAVIES: An interesting bunch of people. Tell us what they do and how you ended up getting one of the floating ducks.
Mr. HOHN: Well, it was in the summer of 2007. I'd just quit a job and it was frantic to get out and hunt. And I'd heard - received word, after making of phone calls, that people were finding the toys. And the first time I'd heard that new ones were being found in a couple of years. Out on a remote isthmus, due south of Anchorage, at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula on the outer coast of the Kenai Wilderness. Really remote place, you can only get there by float plane or helicopter or boat. Uninhabited, no people and yet as a fluke of geography and the fluid dynamics of ocean currents this one half-mile beach scoops out of the passing currents a great deal of flotsam. It had been known as a kind of a happy hunting ground for beachcombers. And this group of conservationists called Gulf of Alaska Keeper had made it their mission to clean up all the debris from the outer coast of that stretch of the Gulf of Alaska.
And they set out on a pretty impressive, almost heroic undertaking, because to get this stuff out of the wilderness it required two or three months of people camping and packing the stuff up into bags and eventually an airlift. But while I was out there with them, toys were found. I, myself, found a plastic beaver in the lea of a spruce. But another beachcomber found a duck and had mercy and gave it to me.
DAVIES: And were you able to confirm that these came from the container that you were looking for?
Mr. HOHN: It's pretty easy to confirm for couple of reasons. One, they're no longer made - they're discontinued. Two, they are unlike bath toys of any other make that I've ever seen. People, I have to confess that there's a duck on the cover of my book, and I hope people won't feel cheated to learn that it was made using Photoshop. This is, the duck on my cover is the one that we would like to imagine. It's the classic iconic bath toy, right? And so when I first heard the story, that's the duck I pictured, like Ernie's, out there on the deep.
Mr. HOHN: The actual toys are, they're kind of funny-looking. They're hollow plastic. They're strange; they're really singular. Secondly, the ducks have a maker's mark on the wing, which helps. And thirdly, we know from previous finds, like those that happened in Sitka, approximately what they would look like after crossing the ocean. The ducks fade almost to white. The beavers turn a weird and milky beige. They get thin. So all of these things together are pretty easy to say, and frankly, they were among the only toys we found out there and they were found by the dozens exactly where the currents would have taken them.
DAVIES: And the truth is that the plastics that are causing harm in the ocean aren't coming from - in the main - from containers that fall off of freighters, right?
Mr. HOHN: Right.
DAVIES: They're coming from what, garbage dumps?
Mr. HOHN: Right. Exactly. And then the other question that came up about these cleanups is - and I saw this because I went to witness this airlift, is the very day that they managed to get 50-plus tons of flotsam out of the forest and onto an amphibious barge, and that was a sense of triumph, I walked the beach and I found 16 polyethylene water bottles, most of them from East Asia, washing in. So it just - it keeps coming back. And that's because it is originating from, not from container ships mainly, though that does contribute some. It's originating from the fishing fleets but also from the coastlines and watersheds of the world. Thousands and thousands of different places, this stuff is entering into the ocean.
DAVIES: You actually tracked down the factory that made the toys and went and visited. But I wanted to go to how the ducks got from the Pacific to the Atlantic. And first of all, how do we know they got that far?
Mr. HOHN: Well, the - I'm going to be a little cagey here because that was the mystery that took a book to solve. It was the one that I - the first real question. When you heard that, one of the news stories I stumbled on, it was reported as a matter of fact: these toys fell overboard, some of them crossed the Arctic.
There was a Reuters item in 2003 that said a small breakaway group was headed to Britain. And so, that seemed exciting to me, the idea of these cheerful little things going where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before, up through the ice. And so I spoke with the oceanographer in Seattle, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, had they in fact made it as he had predicted. And he used some sophisticated ways to predict. He used a computer model to show where they would likely be going and he used historical drift studies that showed indeed things that entered the Bering Strait would ride the Transpolar Drift and exit through Fram Strait off the coast of Greenland and enter the North Atlantic, some coming down towards New England, some crossing over to Europe. And he calculated when it should arrive - it would have been the summer of 2003 - and put out the word.
And beachcombers looked. And most of the toys that were found were not the right kind. And in fact, nobody that I managed to find has produced a specimen that is without a doubt one of the 28,800 toys that fell overboard.
There were a couple of tantalizing sightings, one in Scotland and then one on the coast of Maine. So I went up and interviewed the people who thought they'd seen it and they described it well, but their descriptions didn't entirely agree with each other. So it's still a little bit of a mystery of whether or not they made it. I have my own theories.
DAVIES: Okay. Well, all right. So if in fact they would have floated through the Bering Straits...
Mr. HOHN: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...through the Arctic, down past Greenland and onto New England and gotten there in 2003, that would have been an 11-year journey.
Mr. HOHN: Right. Right.
Mr. HOHN: Right.
DAVIES: And so what is your thinking? I mean this couple that found the stuff in Maine, it sounded like one of them described something that could be it, the other not so sure.
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. Well, they didn't keep it. They didn't keep it. So, they described it after the fact, but of course, it was gone. They assumed it had been some kid who dropped it and then when they heard, not long thereafter, about the story of the toys adrift, they reported their discovery. One said it was - they had seen a toy that was bleached white, which is exactly what it should have been. The other one insists no, it was still pretty yellow. That dye held up pretty well.
And then the other reason why I have my own doubts is that duck that I found in Alaska was in sunlight, which degrades the plastic; it had gotten pretty thin and cracked and it was taking on water. And when I got home to New York I put it in my freezer - closest I could come to simulating the Arctic - and pretty soon it became pretty brittle to the touch. It's now lost its head. So, my suspicion is that by the time they reach the North Atlantic they may be unrecognizable.
DAVIES: That's so disappointing.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HOHN: Yeah. And it's funny because there was - in 2007 the British tabloids got news that they were arriving and they lit up. They reported some woman found a rubber ducky near Devon and the tabloids blared, the invasion begins. The armada has arrived. And that, too, was the wrong one.
DAVIES: Well, Donovan Hohn, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HOHN: Thank you, Dave.
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke with Donovan Hohn, author of the new book "Moby-Duck."
You can read a excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, the band The Vagrants was very popular in New York City in the mid-'60s, but they only recorded 30 minutes worth of music. Those tracks are collected on a new CD.
Our rock historian Ed Ward will have a review after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.