The Lost Container Cruise

Scientists set sail to study the impact of the tens of thousands of shipping containers that litter the ocean floor.

Container From Med Taipei
The tire-filled shipping container from the Med Taipei that inspired the Lost Container Cruise.

On February 25, 2004, the Taiwanese-owned cargo vessel Med Taipei left San Francisco for the Port of Los Angeles, and soon sailed into a violent winter storm. Thirty-knot winds battered the 40,000-ton ship and swells as high as thirty feet rolled it from side to side. Yet the captain continued motoring south at high speed, determined to remain on schedule. Seventy nautical miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, fifteen 40-foot-long shipping containers broke free of their lashings, toppled sideways and fell overboard. By the time she reached her destination, the Med Taipei had lost a total of 24 containers—in effect, leaving a trail of crumbs that stretched from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

That’s where the story would have ended had one of the containers not come to rest within the boundaries of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). Every year an estimated ten thousand containers fall off ships crisscrossing the world’s waterways. Some stay afloat, a hazard to other ships; others sink immediately. Nearly all are lost forever. 

But Monterey Bay is one of the most heavily studied bodies of water on the planet, and four months later scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) stumbled upon one of the Med Taipai’s containers while piloting a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) over the seafloor. It was about 12 miles off the coast, sunk to a depth of 4,200 feet. The container’s serial number was clearly visible, meaning its contents could be verified: 1,159 steel-belted tires. (Some of the ship’s other lost containers were filled with hospital beds, wheel chairs and cyclone fencing.) That it was lost in a federally-protected marine sanctuary meant two other things: Researchers were eager to study the impact of the container on the marine ecosystem; second, the owners and operators of the ship ultimately agreed to pay $3.25 million to resolve allegations of long-term damage to the sanctuary, money which is being used to fund studies and restoration projects.

This March, a team of researchers from MBNMS and MBARI set out aboard the research vessel Western Flyer to examine how the orphan container had affected sea life. They deployed the ROV Doc Ricketts, using its two mechanical arms to collect sediment samples to analyze for pollution. Meanwhile, they reviewed the high-res images captured by the vehicle’s cameras. What they found was surprising. The container [pictured above] was not only in surprisingly good shape—upside down but intact, paint still bright—but it had attracted sea life different from that in the vicinity. It had become home to scallops, sea cucumbers and snails, the latter of which attracted crabs—a subtle change in the ecology. “Large snails had laid eggs in stacks six inches high and crabs at the base were catching the snails,” says Dr. Andrew DeVogelaere, research coordinator at MBNMS and one of the expedition’s lead scientists. “One corner was filled with dead snail shells.”

What this means in the long run isn’t yet clear. DeVogelaere and Jim Barry, a marine biologist at MBARI, plan to mount several expeditions over the course of the next year to study the container over time. DeVogelaere believes it may ultimately create new habitat, akin to a sunken ship turned coral reef. But other potential effects are more ominous. Container ships travel the same routes every year; and DeVogelaere envisions invasive species using strings of lost containers like “stepping stones” to move from port to port. The fact that the container in question was packed with tires and not, for instance, nuclear waste, was also something of a lucky break. But that’s not always the case.

“In Oakland, the fourth busiest port in the United States, ten percent of containers contain toxic substances,” DeVogelaere notes. In January 1992, the Panamanian-flagged break-bulk ship Santa Clara I lost four containers filled with hundreds of barrels of arsenic trioxide—a poisonous substance used as an insecticide, herbicide, and in wood preservative—in a prime fishing zone approximately 40 miles off the coast of New Jersey. (The accident was attributed to the crew’s failure to adequately secure the containers.) Last year, three containers slid from the deck of a Finnish cargo vessel off Sweden’s east coast after one collapsed under the weight of three others. One contained fifteen tons of toxic industrial chemicals. None were recovered.

The solutions to preventing such disasters are surprisingly simple, though devilishly hard to implement given the complexities of global commerce. DeVogelaere says making sure containers are weighed at port can prevent them from being stacked incorrectly. He also recommends attaching tracking beacons to containers so they can be found if they do go overboard. Damaged equipment is also a problem: A U.S. Coast Guard report found the Med Taipai’s cargo had not only been loaded incorrectly but that anchor points had faulty welds, and that D rings (used to lash containers to the deck) were missing.

Perhaps most worrisome, transportation companies have been building dramatically-larger container ships (like the world’s largest, the Emma Maersk, and her seven sister ships), and stacking containers in ever-higher and more precarious towers, this despite the fact that tie-down technology has not kept pace. The ships are also steaming from harbor to harbor at higher speeds—a potentially devastating combination in heavy seas. And with five to six million containers in transit at any given moment, the number of containers that fall overboard seems destined to increase. “I hope this cruise will help expand the public’s thinking,” DeVogelaere says, “because no one is talking about the risk to the deep sea.”

Damon Tabor is a New York-based journalist who has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s, Outside, Wired and Popular Science.

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