Up to 10,000 shipping containers are lost at sea every year, a number that may seem quite high but is actually just a tiny percentage of the approximately 50 million containers sent by sea annually. While most quickly sink out of sight, these containers and their strange & varied cargoes are increasingly on our minds.
The fate of lost shipping containers depends on a number of factors. Some may float for some time and become shipping hazards in their own right. The majority, though, sink quickly as they are not air-tight and their contents are usually not buoyant.
Since most maritime commercial traffic flows along prescribed shipping lanes, one would expect the thousands of shipping containers lost at sea each year for at least several decades to begin marking, as it were, the paths of the world’s cargo ships.
The situation can be likened to a messy eater snacking on potato chips as he walks to and from his school day after day. If the fallen chips weren’t biodegradable, they would begin to build up along the eater’s path – and shipping containers do not decay appreciably over the course of human lifetimes.
Lost & Found… In Davy Jones’ Locker
(image via: Contained)
The yellow TEX container above was discovered by a research team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), who were surveying the floor of Monterey Bay using the remote controlled submersible “Ventana”. The container rests upside down, 1,300 m (4,265 ft) below the surface.
Researchers were able to record the serial numbers on the container and traced to the container ship Med Taipei (above), which left San Francisco just 4 months before (in February of 2004). The ship had lost 15 of its containers during a storm off the California coast, including this particular one which holds over 1,100 steel-belted radial tires made in China. Other containers lost from the ship contained wheelchairs, cyclone fencing, clothing, and recycled cardboard.
(images via: SIMON)
The MBARI team returned to the sunken container’s location in March of 2011 and were surprised at what they found. Images sent back by cameras on the ROV “Doc Ricketts” revealed a preponderance of marine life on and around the 40-foot-long metal shipping box. Just 7 years since it sank, the container had become an isolated underwater reef with a functioning ecosystem featuring predators and prey.
While there is much to be said in favor of establishing artificial reefs, the effects of providing so many such environments in places where they’re not found naturally are subject to speculation.
(images via: Cargolaw)
Are we inadvertently setting up underwater “highways” invasive species can use to travel to new locations? And what about the contents of these sunken containers – it’s estimated about 10 percent carry toxic substances as their cargo.
Chips Off The Old Block
(image via: HamptonRoads)
Beachcombers strolling on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, USA, on November 30th, 2006 were greeted by a strange sight: thousands of bags of Doritos tortilla chips had washed up on the beach, along with the partially open cargo container that they were originally packed into. The chips were dry and edible as they were sealed in bags – a fact that may have allowed the container to float all the way to the beach.
(image via: Shirlaw News Group)
Don’t like chips? How about chocolate chips then? In February of 2008, thousands of packages of McVitie’s chocolate biscuits washed up on the beach at Blackpool, UK, after the cargo ship Riverdance made a bit of a misstep when gale-force winds forced the ship to run aground.
Perhaps the most famous case of lost shipping containers (and found cargo) concerns a consignment of 28,800 bathtub toys called Friendly Floatees. The sealed, air-filled toys began their odyssey in January of 1992 aboard a Chinese cargo ship that saw several 40-foot (13.3 m) intermodal shipping containers slip overboard in rough seas.
Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham saw an opportunity in the shipping company’s loss: it would be possible to construct a detailed model of ocean currents by tracking the progress of the red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks.
Indeed, over the next 15 years the toys began washing up on the world’s seashores. By the summer of 2007 they were being reported from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, which meant that they had been locked into the polar ice pack and carried from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The incident perfectly illustrates how even a single lost shipping container can have a global impact.
Now multiply that single lost shipping container by several thousand, and do it again for 10, 20, 30 years or more. Are the world’s best vacation beaches and scenic shorelines destined to be the final destinations for flotillas of floating Fritos bags, shipwrecked Spalding sneakers and various vanquished volleyballs?
Not only will some future Cast Away Crusoe have hundreds of Wilsons to keep him company, he could use them to build one supremely sporty raft – and this time, we won’t have FedEx to thank (or blame).