'Moby-Duck' book touches shore in Alaska

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2011

During the summer of 2007, New York writer Donovan Hohn visited Gore Point, the big catcher beach at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. He'd come to research a book and interview the maniacs who collect marine debris, but really he'd come in search of the elusive, the mystical and the intriguing Moby-Duck.

Years earlier, in January 1992, a container full of 28,800 bath toys fell off a ship in the north Pacific Ocean, scattering a flotilla of blue frogs, red beavers, green turtles and yellow ducks. By Thanksgiving the plastic toys, properly called The First Years Floatees, began washing up on the Pacific Coast. Beachcombers first found dozens on Chichagof Island near Sitka. After the Sitka Sentinel picked up the story, hundreds more were found. Though other container spills have been tracked, like hockey gloves and Nike shoes, the idea of yellow ducks bobbing through the waves captured the imagination and inspired numerous stories about marine debris.

Teaching journalism at a New York high school, Hohn learned the story of the First Years Floatees while reading a student's essay on rubber ducks that mentioned the spill. An article by Hohn on the ducks for Harper's led to a book contract. Hohn would not just write about the Floatee duck, which he called Moby-Duck, after the Herman Melville novel. He would go to the beaches where Moby-Duck had washed up in Alaska and Hawaii. He would voyage on a container ship across the Pacific. He would go to the factory in Guangdong, China, where the toys were made. Indeed, he would touch the very mold that spewed out thousands of plastic ducks.

That story has come out in a book published last month by Viking, "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."

At Gore Point, Hohn found a Floatee.

"Squatting amid the prickly leaves and stalks of devil's club, plucking kernels of Styrofoam out of the humus, I spotted something," he writes in his book. "Sure enough, there, bleached pale, perched atop dead leaves in the shadow of a spherical fishing float, was a plastic beaver. Not a duck, but good enough."

Hohn went to Gore Point with Gulf of Alaska Keeper, or GoAK, an environmental organization based out of Anchorage that has received state and federal grants to do marine debris cleanups at remote Alaska beaches. In a major section of the book, "The Second Chase," Hohn writes about that experience, as well as some of the environmental issues related to marine debris.

In 2007, volunteers and GoAK workers removed about 45,000 pounds from Gore Point and nearby beaches. The cleanup and GoAK were called an "Astroturf" operation and criticized as a feel-good project supported by oil companies -- including BP -- that made industry look like it was being environmentally responsible. One fisherman who came upon the project railed at GoAK crews for making a trash dump that he said wouldn't get taken off the Gore Point isthmus. GoAK did get the debris off the point and back to Homer.

Central to "Moby-Duck" is that image of a duck bobbing on the waves. The cover shows the iconic bath tub toy and not the actual First Years Floatee.

"It's justified," Hohn said. "I'm chasing after the fable as well as the fact. It's also bizarrely irresistible. It's the image that pops into everybody's head when they first hear it."

"It's the incongruity of the toys that above all things enchants me," Hohn writes in one section, imagining the Floatees as they first drifted. "They are incongruously small compared to the deep; incongruously colorful in that gray-green seascape, the red beaver and the yellow duck especially since they have only just begun to fade; incongruously cheerful under circumstances that would drive mad a castaway both sentient and mortal; incongruously human, and childish, and domestic, and pastoral."

Hohn said he thought of the book as traveling in space and time, back to the container spill, back to the factory where the toys were made, along the paths of the Floatees and even into the future. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Seattle has speculated that the Floatees could travel through the Northwest Passage and into the Atlantic Ocean, and there have been unconfirmed sightings -- but no collections -- of Floatees in Maine.

In "Moby-Duck's" final section, Hohn travels on the Canadian Coast Guard Cutter Louis S. St-Laurent through the Northwest Passage. Hohn has his own theory about the probability of a Floatee making it to the Atlantic Ocean, but didn't want to spoil the book's ending.

Hohn's publisher, Viking, didn't know what to make of his book, he said, and wasn't sure if it's an environmental book or travel book. It's exceeded Viking's expectations and is in its third printing.

"It's a weird book. It's some weird book that no one thought would do well, and now they want another one like it," he said.

"Moby-Duck" has received positive reviews in the New York Times and People magazine. His book tour will take him to Seattle April 16-19, Portland April 20-21 and San Francisco April 22-24.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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