There are books that someone plans and writes in an orderly fashion about a particular topic. There are others that seem to write themselves and grow, guided more or less blindly, by the power of an obsession. Some years ago, Donovan Hohn happened to read the story of a shipwreck that occurred in 1992 in the most desolate area of the Pacific Northwest, south of the Aleutian Islands. Later he would discover that in reality it had not been a shipwreck: a freighter, the Ever Laurel, was caught in a terrible storm, and during one of the violent pitches that almost sank it, some of the containers stored on deck slid into the ocean. Inside one of them was a shipment of 28,800 plastic toys made in China and destined for the United States. On the basis of his early readings, which very soon led him to neglect his work and lose days at a time in periodical rooms consulting obscure journals on maritime commerce or tracking down information on the Internet, Hohn learned that the 28,800 toy animals were little yellow ducks with big eyes and an orange bill like the ones that float in children’s bathtubs all over the world. He imagined the waters of the Pacific covered by an armada of little yellow ducks, dispersed by the currents as the years passed, appearing in blocks of ice in the Arctic or in the seaweed washed up by the tide on beaches in Brazil or New England.

Hohn had a respectable job, a family. His wife was pregnant with their first child, and he worked as a teacher in a good school in New York. At first his investigation was more or less capricious. He learned that in reality the little shipwrecked animals were not all yellow ducks, comically rocked by waves several meters high in the deepest seas, the ones most remote from the planet’s terra firma. There were 7,200 ducks, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 red beavers, 7,200 blue turtles. And their loss at sea was not the only disaster to occur in those waters: in 1990, in a collision of two merchant ships near Alaska, a shipment of 80,000 pairs of Nike sneakers had been lost. Months later odd sneakers covered with seaweed and small mollusk shells appeared on the beaches of the northwest coast of Canada. In 1995, on a beach in WashingtonState, someone had found a turtle, still perfectly blue, and a faded duck. Hohn discovered a subculture of obsessive collectors of objects washed up by the ocean, as well as scientists specializing in oceanography and ecology who studied the patterns of ocean currents to determine the trajectory of the tons of plastic trash that accumulate even in the farthest reaches of the high seas, the least visited coastlines, the beaches on islands that most resemble the earthly paradise.

By this time Hohn was totally committed to the search. The future book had exploded in his imagination, like a plastic toy bursts out of the water when a child has pushed it to the bottom of the tub and then releases it. Perhaps the great joke of the title occurred to him when he was not yet sure he would start to write the book, because the best titles are not tags that adhere a posteriori to a completed volume but imperious seeds that contain it whole and confirm the possibility, the necessity, of its writing. Donovan Hohn had read accounts of explorations from the time he was very young, and with Moby-Dick he had acquired a long debt of gratitude and devotion that never abandons us once we have been infected by this novel that never ends and resembles no other. Moby-Duck is a joke and a tribute.[1] Imagining the mad story of the loss, search for, and discovery of those 28,800 shipwrecked toys and giving it that title almost meant holding the book in his hands.

But the book, in order to exist, would demand not only the discipline of research and daily writing. Very soon Donovan Hohn discovered that really to tell about that adventure he had to live it firsthand. He obtained a leave of absence from school and decided to travel to the coast in the far north of Alaska where not long before a duck, a turtle, and two or three beavers had appeared. His wife was weeks away from giving birth, and he was off sailing the far north of the world in the company of fearless researchers and eccentric adventurers who risked their lives attempting to alleviate in some small way the immense catastrophe of plastic trash. The white whale of his search were those little toy animals, but the apocalypse he was encountering turned out to be more terrifying than the hunts that toward the end of the nineteenth century almost exterminated the great cetaceans. In forests of conifers submerged in a perpetual mist of ocean drizzle his boots sank into extensions of plastic remains tossed inland by violent storms. The dirtiest beach in the world is not on the touristic shores of the Mediterranean, with its summer broth of tanning creams, but in the far south- west of Hawaii, where no one lives and the sand sparkles in the sun with millions of bits and fragments and entire objects of plastic. In the laboratory of a marine biologist, he witnessed the examination of the stomachs of dead albatrosses: half-digested fish and squid mixed in a foul-smelling paste with lighters, water-bottle tops, and plastic rings of the kind that hold what in supermarkets are called packs of canned beer or soda.

A hundred miles from the archipelago of Hawaii, in the samples of sea water collected in the sailing vessel on which Hohn was traveling, the plastic content was forty-six times greater than that of plankton. One of the scientists on board jumped in the water with his flippers and diving mask; and when he resurfaced, he had on his head a plastic bag from a Japanese supermarket chain. Millions of disposable lighters from all over the world travel the marine currents and end up in the stomachs of albatrosses. The longer a marine animal’s life—an albatross can live fifty years—the more time it has to be poisoned by the toxic substances contained in plastics.

Donovan Hohn has continued his search for years. The people he meets are so strange, so outlandish, so heroic, they could provide material for several more possible books. I read Moby-Duck and recovered the nervous excitement of the great travel tales I had liked so much in my restricted, sedentary adolescence, the ones invented by Verne and Stevenson and those really lived by so many explorers who revealed to you, even if you had not left your village, the marvel of the world’s breadth and variety.



[Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. Originally appeared in El País on April 9, 2011 under the title “Apocalipsis del plástico.”]

[1] 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, by Donovan Hohn. Viking Adult. $27.95.