Moby Duck

Moby-Duck (2011) by Donovan Hohn

They were toys destined only to bob up and down in nothing larger than a child’s bath – but so far they have floated halfway around the world.

The ducks began life in a Chinese factory and were being shipped to the US from Hong Kong when three 40ft containers fell into the Pacific during a storm on January 29th 1992. Two thirds of them floated south through the tropics, landing months later on the shores of Indonesia, Australia and South America. But 10,000 headed north and by the end of the year were off Alaska and heading back westwards. It took three years for the ducks to circle east to Japan, past the original drop site and then back to Alaska on a current known as the North Pacific Gyre, before continuing north towards the Arctic.

Since then they have travelled 17,000 miles, floating over the site where the Titanic sank, landing in Hawaii and even spending years frozen in an Arctic ice pack.

Heading for Britain, they were soon to be spotted on beaches in South-West England.

The toys have helped researchers to chart the great ocean currents because when they are spotted on the shore they are much more likely to be reported to the authorities than the floats which scientists normally use. There is still much to be learnt about ocean currents.

Because the toys are made of durable plastic and are sealed watertight, they have been able to survive years adrift at the mercy of wind and current..

In the intervening years, an oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, has devoted his retirement to tracking the little yellow ducks and their friends over 17,000 miles, and it is he who has predicted that they would land in the west of England.

Mr Ebbesmeyer thought the toys would be easy for British beachcombers to spot because they had largely faded to white and had the words “The First Years” stamped upon them.

He correctly predicted what many thought was impossible – that thousands of them would end up washed into the Arctic ice near Alaska, and then move at a mile a day, frozen in the pack ice, around the ‘North-West Passage’ to the Atlantic.

It proved true years later and in 2003, the first “Friendly Floatees” were found on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada.

So important to science are they that the US firm that made them offered a £50 reward for finding one. The landfalls have all been logged on a computer model called the Ocean Surface Currents Simulation, which is used to help fisheries and find people lost at sea. Several children’s books have so far been written about the saga (for example 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle) and the ducks have become collector’s items, changing hands for £500.


10 JANUARY 1992: Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean nearly 29,000 First Years bath toys, including bright yellow rubber ducks, are spilled from a cargo ship in the Pacific Ocean.

16 NOVEMBER 1992: Caught in the Subpolar Gyre (counter-clockwise ocean current in the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Siberia), the ducks take 10 months to begin landing on the shores of Alaska.

EARLY 1995: The ducks take three years to circle around to the east from the drop site to Alaska, then west and south to Japan before turning back north and east passing the original drop site and again landing in North America. Some ducks are even found In Hawaii. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) worked out that the ducks travel approximately 50 per pent faster than the water in the current.

1995 – 2000: Some intrepid ducks escape the Sub polar Gyre and head North, through the Bering Strait and into the frozen waters of the Arctic. Frozen into the ice the ducks travel slowly across the pole, moving ever eastward.

2000: Ducks begin reaching the North Atlantic where they begin to thaw and move southward. Soon ducks are sighted bobbing in the waves from Maine to Massachusetts.

2001: Ducks are tracked in the area where the Titanic sank.

JULY TO DECEMBER 2003: The First Years Company offers a $100 savings bond reward for the recovery of wayward ducks from the 1992 spill. To be valid ducks must be sent to the company and must be found in New England, Canada or Iceland. Britain is told to prepare for an invasion of the wayward ducks as well.

2003: A lawyer, Sonali Naik was on holiday in the Hebrides in north-west Scotland when she found a faded green frog on the beach marked with the magic words ‘The First Years’. Unaware of the significance of her find she left it on the beach. It was only when she was chatting to other guests at her hotel that she realised what she had seen.

‘Floatees’ Odyssey 1992- 2007

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 is Donovan Hohn’s personal odyssey.

Hohn, 38, features editor for GQ magazine, was an English teacher in Manhattan when he first learned of a cargo of plastic toys washing off the deck of a cargo ship in the Pacific.

Later he had the idea for a book, a map in his hands and a vision of a journey.

Perhaps it was the craziest thing I did — forget the seafaring and walking around in the habitat of polar bears and quit my job and give up employer subsidized health benefits,” he said.

All told the book consumed some five years of his life, and that was more than a dozen years after the ducks disappeared.

A travel narrative, a journey across the oceans, and a tale with a solid dose of science, Hohn said it was largely the book he intended to write.

Starting with the position of the January 1992 toy spill, which was actually 7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles and 7,200 yellow ducks, he scoured the places the toys were found, where they should have been and the source factory in China.

The title is a play on the famous novel but Hohn said he thought of himself as a kind of ‘Ishmael’, the narrator of “Moby Dick“. And there are other literary parallels.

Nature has always been a subject important in American literature from at least the time of Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, a fact which Hohn is inherently aware.

What he didn’t intend to do was write an environmental story but after seeing for himself man’s destructive impact said, “No one now could write a book about the ocean and leave the environmental concerns out.”

Expressing concern rather than an activist viewpoint, Hohn hopes the book is a “vicarious education” that entertains.

We have changed the ocean, its chemistry and ecology,” he said. “Oceans used to seem divine, a vision of the eternal. Not now.”

He ruminates on several mysteries of life, including childhood and the ocean and how ubiquitous yellow rubber ducks, now made from plastic, were and are in childhood and society.

Thanks to: http:/ Floatees

http:/ of rubber-ducks land on British shores after 15 year journey

http:/ Duck: The synthetic wilderness of childhood