This is FRESH AIR, our weekly program devoted to the environment. What happens when 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys are accidentally dumped in the ocean? Where do the ocean currents take them, and what environmental impact do the ducks and other ocean junk have on the seas? That’s what our guest, the journalist Donovan Hahn, investigated in his book “Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them”.
REPORTER: Welcome, Mr. Hahn, to FRESH AIR.
Donovan Hahn: Thank you. Happy to be here.
REPORTER: Let’s begin at the beginning. These 28,000 toys end up in the North Pacific in January, 1992, when a container falls off a cargo vessel. When and where do people begin finding them?
DH: The following year, in the autumn of 1993, people started finding hundreds of rubber ducks in Sitka, Alaska.
REPORTER: So the ducks were in a container that fell into the ocean. Does that happen often? I mean, millions of containers are shipped around the world every year, so I would imagine that this was a pretty rare event.
DH: In fact, the loss of containers at sea is not so uncommon. But the shipping companies don’t particularly like to talk about this problem because of issues with insurance policies. In the accident that is the subject of my book, 12 containers were lost at sea, and that is considered a small spill. In 1998, there was a major disaster in which a ship traveling from China to Seattle, Washington lost 407 containers. That was one of the most expensive shipping disasters in history.
REPORTER: Could you tell us a little more about the kind of ship this container was on, so we can understand how these containers are lost?
DH: Sure. These cargo ships are huge, they’re hundreds of meters long. Many are too big to go through the Panama Canal, which explains the importance of the shipping routes between China and the west coast of the U.S. They carry hundreds and hundreds of containers. Even though some containers are carried below deck, most are stacked on top of each other on the main deck. Typically, the containers are placed into stacks of six, so you can see how easy it would be for some to fall off.
REPORTER: With so many stacked containers, how do they NOT fall off the ships?
DH: The shipping companies study how to best stack the containers in order to balance their weight without affecting the ship’s ability to maneuver.
REPORTER: It must be a complex calculation.
DH: It is. And, of course, insurance companies require the shipping companies to take every measure to get the calculations right.
REPORTER: It must be hard, with the size of these ships. And they also have to take into account the weather, which can be very bad in the North Pacific.
DH: Absolutely. The shipping companies believe that the huge ships today will survive almost any storm, and for the most part, they do. The fact that these ships are so huge explains why they are more likely to try to sail through bad weather than ships in the past, which tried hard to avoid storms. In fact, part of the route taken by the large cargo ship that lost the toys off the coast of Oregon is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific because of all the shipwrecks recorded there, especially during the time of sailing ships in the 19th century. Given the number of ships today, significant accidents are quite rare.
REPORTER: Let’s go back to the lost rubber ducks. Can you tell us a little bit about what would have happened that day? I mean, what was in this container, and what would’ve happened as it tumbled into the sea?
DH: We know where the cargo ship was—it was very near the International Date Line, just south of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. We don’t know if it was day or night. We know that a ship in the same area sent a weather report to the National Weather Service describing waves over 10 meters high, which means the seas were rough. We don’t know exactly how, but 12 containers went overboard. And the container with the toys would have burst open during the fall, and initially a bunch of cardboard boxes were sent into the sea.
REPORTER: And then I suppose the cardboard dissolved, so what we have left are the toys.
REPORTER: How can you be so sure that the toys found in Alaska are the ones that were lost at sea in this container?
DH: That part of the investigation was actually easy. First, these toys are no longer being made, so the design is different and not difficult to recognize. They are hollow plastic and sort of strange-looking. Second, the ducks have the manufacturer’s mark on the wing. Third, we know from other merchandise lost at sea what plastic looks like after crossing the ocean. The ducks became thin and lost their color, becoming almost white. And finally, the toys were found by the dozens exactly where the sea currents would have taken them.
REPORTER: One of the things you mention in your book is the harm that plastics are causing in the ocean. But you say that most of the harm isn’t from container ships but rather from other sources, is that right?
DH: Yes, although container ships are responsible for some of the plastic waste in the oceans, in fact most of the plastics are from coastlines with urban waste and garbage dumps, and even fishing fleets. Merchandise from containers lost at sea is just a small portion of the problem.
REPORTER: That’s all we have time for today on FRESH AIR. Thank you, Mr. Hohn, for your interesting story.
DH: My pleasure.
Adapted from an interview heard on National Public Radio’s programme Fresh Air, March 29, 2011.