The Yellowness of the ‘Moby Duck’: Chasing Bath Toys Lost at Sea

It seemed like the perfect story. In 1992, a freight crate of rubber duckies fell overboard in a North Pacific storm. The romance and image of the ubiquitous childhood bath companion blithely bobbing by cathedrals of ice, dodging the yawning maws of leviathans, and crisscrossing the oceans (O the things you’ll see!) is infectious and arresting. Then, to heighten the drama, they began washing up on shore.

As a catchy lead or a cocktail party anecdote, it’s a slamdunk. As a book, it makes for a mixed bag in Donovan Hohn’s 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.

The story of the castaway toys spread quickly through the news as a cute “human interest” piece. Stories of their incredible journey across the sea and their washing ashore made for fun copy, but it was almost always rife with factual inaccuracies. One such headline inspired children’s author Eric Carle to adapt the story into one of his signature, illustrated tales. Here, as in the news, the facts took a back seat to the storytelling. Hohn, current GQ features editor, is the journalist who decided he’d get to the bottom of things, not realizing the pursuit would eat up a few years of his life.

There are a few disappointing, grown-up realities attending this book, and it’s best you face them now. The rubber duckies, first off, aren’t actually rubber duckies exactly. They’re plastic and they’re ducks, turtles, beavers and frogs. They’re not the squeaky, sunshine-yellow classics with the satisfied, tipsy smile. Finally, for those piqued by the science of the tale, it turns out that random oceanic flotsam makes a poor vessel of data.

Disclaimers and approximations are at the heart of the drama and science Hohn seeks. But while you might rightly brand Moby Duck as a “fishing tale”, I don’t all together regret having been reeled in by the bait.

The title’s playful allusion to Moby Dick, for instance, turned out to be more apt and more rewarding than expected. Following Hohn from an initial journalist’s web search to the deck of a freight ship in the icy Arctic sea, the reader is treated to a healthy assortment of asides, tangents and queries hard to anticipate at the book’s beginning. Along the way, readers encounter a breadth of facts and wonderment just as vast and encyclopedic as found in Melville’s whale of a tale … of a whale.

What’s more, as Melville’s Moby Dick had a good amount to say about America’s leviathan industrial thrust two centuries ago, Hohn’s composite opens up wholly accessible lines of discussion to some of the key issues of our day. Come for the fantastic voyage of your childhood bath toys, stay for the insight into ecology, the modern maritime world, some light organic chemistry, the cultural import of the sea, and the vagaries of a global economy of manufacturing, shipping and commerce.

“Hast thou seen the yellow duck?” Such is Hohn’s adaptation of mad Ahab’s refrain, one of many parallels with Melville. In hunting these toys lost at sea, the author makes the aquaintence of beachcombers whose findings prompt conjecture about ocean currents; workers in Guangdong, China, who paint and package thousands of dishwasher safe toys to be shipped to American tubs; sea captains (few of whom are as gruff as their archetypes in fiction); Inuit elders, conservationists, and enthusiastic interns who’ve devoted their summer to stuffing notes into bottles to track oceanic drift.

The science of the sea, treated fascinatingly and appropriately as a climate rather than a linear expanse, is engaging, the pockets of basic mariner physics equally so, but the narrative pace suffers when Hohn interjects the folksy characters he meets along the way. What Kerouac did “on the road” wilts at sea, just as Studs Terkel’s interviews with everyday humps work because their jobs are, in essence, mundane; the quiet dignity of the factory worker affects people differently than the sailor on nightwatch, floating in sublime isolation.

The actual humans in this human-interest story drag as distractions. Hohn is largely uninspired in recounting his encounters and conversations, including some merely out of a sense of duty. But, we look to the sea to compare our deepest selves with the elements, not other mugs.

The sea and and its many drifters—rubber or otherwise—have long been synonymous with the freedom of limitless possibility. In its tumults, crests and sublime calm expanses, we find Romanticism embodied. In theory, anecdotal run-ins with tidal conspiracy theorists, scientists and toy magnates sound like a promising read. Mostly, they are brought only to half life in Hohn’s rendering—or perhaps they’re rendered too closely to the real thing. The eccentric beachcomber is well-adjusted and balanced. The toy magnate doesn’t deliver chillingly transparent PR deflections in the voice of Mr. Burns. If social life at sea is usually depicted in cliché and fiction as solitary, it might be because it doesn’t always translate very well for landlubbers … or readers.

Our motives for taking to the sea haven’t always been demonstrative of our best selves—think of war, colonial expansion, swimsuit modeling, and taking out the trash. Our treatment of the Earth’s waters can be at times brutish, mercenary and opportunistic. And yet, we remain thoroughly enchanted. The oceans provide humans with sustenance, livelihoods, transport, therapy, and a topography for our dreams. Imbued with the eternal, the sea is sublime, so what we add to it-—pollution, conquest, trade, childhood nostalgia—-we cannot help but consider with a philosophical twist.

In its best moments, Hohn marries the mundane with the sublime, exploiting the gap between the poetry of the sea and the fact that in 2011, very few of us have any idea what life on a freight ship is like.

Transporting freight by sea still rules—as Hohn points out, a train pulling enough boxcars to match a not uncommon-sized ship would need to be 19 miles long! Although the business is safer and capable of moving more goods than ever before, for most of us shipping exists solely in the abstract. When boats and oceans make headlines, it’s generally through environmental catastrophe, natural disaster, or, more recently, piracy. One of Moby Duck’s best features is its insight into the daily-do of maritime life. To his credit, Hohn has done a lot with a routine cargo spill.

Agreeing on accurate statistics for cargo losses at sea is difficult because shipping companies are naturally skittish about reporting them. When they do occur, governmental organizations rarely get involved except in egregious or special cases. Usually, spillage is regarded as a simple legal matter settled by lawyers and claims adjusters with the losses absorbed by manufacturers, shipping companies and, most likely, consumers—even those who are modest in their bath-toy expenditures. With little in the way of official investigation, the story of these 28,800 lost bath toys represents something of a maritime detective story.

Hohn succeeds in getting more answers than most journos who came before him, but since the whodunit is fairly open-shut (I won’t give away the culprit, but it has something to do with water), he wisely follows the fugitives.

Every story’s got to have its main character, and Moby Duck is strongest when it keeps the focus on its floating, bath-time protagonist. Unlike other childhood icons like Mickey Mouse or Looney-Toons, says Hohn, the quintessential rubber ducky is not trademarked, affording him a certain ease of cultural access. (Face it, Rubber Ducky is on every list and gets in everywhere.) He represents the innocence of youth. He makes bath time fun, but he also helps win a Grammy, too. Ernie’s rubber ducky single went to No. 16 on the Billboard charts in 1970, and was nominated for the coveted award only to lose it to a Sesame Street compilation record, in effect losing to itself!

Serving as a muse to some of our most revered puppet rockstars, the rubbery duck has perpetuated his own celebrity in a way other rock namesakes can only dream of. (When’s the last time you read about what the Kinks’ Lola or Clapton’s Layla were up to now?)

Of course, any sailor will tell you, it’s not who you know, but what you’re made of. For the babyboomers (whose children were some of rubber ducky’s first converts), beings made of synthetic wonderstuff like rubber or plastic enjoyed less scrutiny than they might from today’s eco-savvy, health-minded parents. To parents and children of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the colorful, hygienic newness of plastics and rubber represented an optimism in the future, a waking from the nightmares of war and the soft deprivation of yesterday’s market.

Like time capsules, messages in bottles, and transmissions greeting E.T. in all the languages of the world, the rubber ducky lost at sea is a composite of our cultural dreaming cast off into the unknown. Moby Duck doesn’t sustain that meditation from start to finish, suffering for the most part when it deviates. But in its circuitous route, Hohn’s search for answers prompts some enjoyable reflection about the delicate Earth shared by humans and all the species—squeaky, rubber and otherwise—over which we’ve cast our dominion.

RATING 6 / 10