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The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalist, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

Donovan Hohn

The subtitle said it all, and there isn't much more to it that that

An interesting series of news articles, but that's it. Every so often a container falls off a ship in a big storm. You know what a container ship looks like - boxes stacked up high, and whole thing looking like a capsize waiting to happen. Usually they stay where they're supposed to, but sometimes a bad storm rolls the ship so violently that the rigging breaks, and boxes go overboard. And on some of those times, one box hits another, splitting it open, and spilling it's contents. And if the contents are lighter than water, they float. And if the spill is on the main trade route from China to America, the floating stuff will travel on the North Pacific gyre (isn't that an unusual word - it just means big ocean current) and wind up on beaches all down the left coast of America,

So it's not really that strange, or even special. And there isn't really a book in it, but here it is.

(Since I couldn't be bothered reading whole thing, here's London Times review by someone who did)

O n January 10, 1992, a container ship en route to America from China hit a violent storm in the Graveyard of the Pacific, north of Japan and west of Alaska. As hurricane-force winds powered 36ft waves, the 29,000-ton Ever Laurel “rolled and pitched and yawed about like a toy in a Jacuzzi”, until 12 of its containers snapped their steel lashings and plunged into the sea. As it fell, one burst open, releasing 28,800 polyethylene Floatee bath toys, including 7,200 yellow ducklings. The legend of the lost, seafaring “rubber ducks” was born.

This quirky book recounts the American journalist Donovan Hohn’s quest to discover where the Floatees came from, and where, in our polluted ocean currents, they are going. It sometimes feels like a magazine feature that has got out of hand, but it is intimate, intrepid and often shocking. Hohn’s task takes him sailing to Alaska, Hawaii, the Canadian Arctic, China and across a stormy, wintry Pacific aboard a container ship. On the way, he meets a host of charismatic guides, from blind oceanographers and beachcombing ecologists to Chinese factory owners. (He also likes to give each character a full paragraph’s introduction: “In walked a surfer chick,” he narrates; “Tucked into her knotted hair above the Rastafarian headband was a pair of sunglasses. She was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a black tank top.”)

Most of the Floatee toys were drawn into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vast, clockwise-spinning current whose becalmed heart forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area the size of Texas. One of Hohn’s guides, “scientific adventurer” Charles Moore (“grease-stained khaki shirt with holes at both elbows, the top four buttons undone to expose a grizzled wedge of chest fur”), takes a week to cross an endless sea of bottles, volleyballs and fishing nets, all bobbing amid “a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of plastic ­fragments”: the plastic-plankton soup. Hohn goes snorkelling in the Garbage Patch, and struggles to reconcile its apparent “vertiginous emptiness” with the plastic he sees Moore trawl out of it — ­remnants of the 300m tons of the stuff we throw away every year. “Throwing stuff away?”scoffs Moore; “there is no away. The ocean is away”.

Hohn also goes looking for the Floatees that escaped the gyre. An Alaskan conservationist (“khaki Adventure pants and a grass-green windbreaker”) takes Hohn to a supposedly pristine, officially protected state wilderness park, where he finds plastic debris scattered thickly as far as 100 yards inland. On another voyage, a Hawaiian marine biologist (“button-down blouse and sandals and glasses and pink glass earrings”) directs him to Kamilo beach, where he picks up sand that looks like “the colourful gravel you used to see at the bottoms of decorative fish tanks”. That is the Floatees’ ultimate destiny. Like 60% of all plastics, they will drift for ever. Nothing can digest them, though “plenty of organisms try”, as Hohn grimly puts it. Fragmenting into ever-smaller particles, they will attract pollutants, becoming tiny “poison pills” that become increasingly potent as they pass up the food chain. The bad news for us is that we’re at the top.

There are plenty of grim warnings like this, but Hohn gives us more than an eco-fable. He collects information and words like a gyre collects plastic. Aboard an ice-breaker, he finds out how to tell“frazil ice” (a crystalline soup) from “grease ice” (able to bear the weight of a man in snowshoes); he learns that 12-storey freak waves can sink even a giant vessel such as the one he is on. He helps release beacons that scour the ocean for “mesoscale eddies”, vast, slow-moving and only recently discovered underwater storms that have forced oceanographers to imagine currents not as rivers but as weather patterns. At the Po Sing factory in the smoggy backwaters of the Pearl river delta, he watches as yellow “nurdles”of resin are turned into a sock of goo and then into a duck-shaped mould.

Oddly, Hohn’s story acquires real depth when he investigates rubber ducks themselves. Exploring why they are so iconic, he digs up a 1942 US-government-issued childcare manual, which advises parents at bath-time to “see to it that he has a toy to play with and he will not need to use his body as a plaything”. Rubber ducks, it seems, were once the ultimate in hygienic American fun. It will be hard to look at them in the same way again. It will be hard to see the ocean the same way, either. Hohn gives us a sea that is not wild and limitless, but “smaller and more vulnerable than we’d thought”. It is our own bathtub, you could say, and we are apparently sitting in the dirty water.

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