What’s in a book’s title? It can be a pretty good tip-off about what to expect in the book, and might even suggest not just what information the contents will deliver but the attitude with which it is. This title, with its humor, and the cover art of plastic ducks with smiley beaks surfing a treacherous open ocean had me intrigued at first glance. With its twist on Melville, Moby-Duck suggests a joke, but the story told is no joke at all. As obsessed as Melville’s Ahab was in chase of the mythical white whale, the author, Donovan Hohn, traversed global waters in search of similarly elusive but compelling yellow plastic ducks, curious as to what their travels might reveal. This isn’t a novel, no exercise in imagination—as if a children’s story—about plastic ducks toppling into the Pacific when their cartons spill from a heavily laden freighter caught in heavy seas. It’s a true story, and as it turns out, a not unusual occurrence in the shipping business. On January 10, 1992, a freighter that departed Hong Kong hit rough weather en route to Seattle, south of the Aleutians in an area known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. The waves could have been 40 feet high. Among the cargo washed overboard were 28,800 bathtub toys, “Floatees,” including ducks, beavers, turtles and frogs. The author wasn’t the only one interested in their fate. As the title hints, Hohn’s quixotic quest to track them down put him in good company; his adventures and his opportunities to learn from well-respected oceanographers, scientists, environmentalists and salvage specialists are what the book shares with us.

Hohn, a former teacher, begins by describing his own curiosity with the news story and how the iconic “rubber duckie,” now most commonly plastic, captures both children’s and adults’ imaginations. Many of us would take that spark of interest—so many bath toys loose at sea and what happens to them?—and satisfy that by looking at a map or adding the story to our “Hall of Fame” for ducklings or heroics on the high seas. But Moby-Duck is more than that. I don’t want to call it the “dark side” of curiosity, but here is where the author’s obsession creeps in. Hohn quits his job, bids farewell to his pregnant and understanding wife in Manhattan, and dedicates most of the next few years (he is home for the birth of his son and subsequent quality time) to the ducks, or, more generally, plastics and the ocean. It turns out there is nothing cute about the situation.

Hohn explores the story from a number of perspectives, including the mapping of ocean currents, changes in the polar icecap and navigation of the Northwest Passage. But one pervasive theme is the vast amount of plastic now in the sea, whether in the infamous floating “Garbage Patch” of the Pacific, or the mountains of it on Alaskan or Hawaiian beaches. The prognosis is dismal for any of this pollution going away quickly or easily. Hohn muses on whom to hold responsible. With the cost of manufacturing cheaper abroad, products travel great distances on freighters offering little guarantee of safety in bad weather. Consumers accept the ecological price of using cheap, disposable products. Much of the litter Hohn sees is plastic beverage bottles. In exchange for that one quick drink someone has enjoyed, that bottle will be around for at least the next 50 years before degrading, and its toxins, such as PCBs, will be ingested into the aqueous food chain. Thinking of the long list of marine pollutants, Hohn sadly concludes, “I know now it is upon Rachel Carson’s ocean, not Melville’s, that I’ve sailed.” Melville romanticized the sea as eternal and immutable. The illusion is a nice one, as is the notion that our throw-away lifestyle, largely supported by cheap plastics, won’t have permanent and negative consequences. Maybe the kind of hope Hohn had that the ducks would survive their travail is metaphor for ours as well.

Tina Cohen is a summer resident of Vinalhaven