What happens to shipping containers lost at sea?


Brace yeselves fer a tale of the high seas. Out there, in the deep, there be abandoned shipping containers. Yarr.

The merchant vessel Med Taipei left San Francisco on February 25, 2004, in the middle of a winter storm. As the ship steamed south toward the Port of Los Angeles, it began rolling violently in seven- to nine-meter (23- to 30-foot) swells. In a rush to get his goods to port, the captain continued southward at high speed, despite the rolls. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the containers on their ship had been stacked incorrectly, with massive, heavy containers perched on top of lighter ones.

Shortly after midnight on February 26, when the Med Taipei was directly offshore of Monterey Bay, stacks of containers began to break free of their lashings and topple sideways. Fifteen of the 40-foot-long containers fell overboard into the churning sea. Yet the ship continued south. By the time the ship reached the Port of Los Angeles, nine more containers had fallen overboard, and another 21 lay crumpled on deck.

This kind of thing happens all the time. In fact, I've been told that one of the hazards of trans-oceanic sailing trips are lost shipping containers that haven't quite sunk yet, but are still hard to spot. In the middle of the Atlantic, the last thing you want is to pull a Titanic on a metal box full of lawn chairs. But what hadn't occurred to me is what happens after these containers find their way to the ocean floor. Now, that sentence would make a nice lead-in to telling you about how lost shipping containers affect the environments they drop in on. Unfortunately, though, nobody yet knows the answers to that question. It's not been studied before.

But that's about to change. See, one of the containers from the Med Taipei managed to land within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where it was discovered by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. This week, they're using a robotic submarine to study the container— which holds 1,159 steel-belted tires, if you're curious—and the impact it has on deep seafloor ecology. Better yet, the research is funded by the $3.25 million settlement that the owners of the Med Taipei paid to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I'll be checking up on this later, to find out what the scientists learn from that box full of tires. When I find out, you'll be the first to know.

Via Joe Rojas-Burke

Image: © 2004 MBARI


  1. Wow … just imagine this could be your moving container .. with ALL your stuff in it …

  2. Lawn chairs probably wouldn’t do much harm but tires are toxic. They need to remove that container and its contents, if they can. Hell, the tires might still be okay.

  3. A close friend’s family lost everything in a move to Australia 12 years ago when his father was transferred for work. The container tumbled into the ocean during a bad storm. Though insurance reimbursed them for their losses, his parents lost family photos and heirlooms–including every photo that ever existed of his little brother.

    Family and friends helped out with copies of old family photos but they’ll never get it all back.

    Also lost were several short films that my friend and I had made in high school. We never thought to make back-up copies. That one hurt both of us.

  4. Yep. Cost of sending a container is partly related to where it is on the ship. Those in the “might fall off” areas travel for a much lower cost. If you’re well insured and/or can afford to “self-insure” (write off the loss), and the stuff doesn’t really care when it gets there, accepting that risk can be a good business decision.

    This is where some of the escaped sneakers/duckies/etc. news stories come from.

    Hadn’t thought about the containers that don’t immediately sink… Yeah, that _is_ a risk. Too many of those and it’ll be like running a submarine blockade. I wonder whether there’s sonar specialized to recognize these yet.

      1. I believe Otters get first dibs, but watch out for Sea Lions…. those pinnepeds know how to bust your balls on the “Off the truck” merchandise.

  5. Now, that sentence would make a nice lead-in to telling you about how lost shipping containers affect the environments they drop in on. Unfortunately, though, nobody yet knows the answers to that question. It’s not been studied before.

    My money is on, “It’s bad. Really bad.” And if I’m wrong, you can have all the contents of the shipping container I lost at sea. Environmentally safe booty. Yarr!

  6. I’d actually guess that the environmental impact of these is trivial compared to the ammount of crud that gets dumped in wetlands, flushed down toilets, etc.

  7. I don’t know about the container, but quite often the ship’s captain receives his cut of the insurance check. I firmly believe this issue is one of the biggest insurance scams of our time. And our oceans’ ecology pays for it.

    1. Yeah, I was about to chime in with that little fact (aircraft carriers turn out to be good for reef building). With the charming hooks on all the corners, it would be trivial to raise of of these, if you could figure out which ones were valuable enough to salvage.

      1. 19×61?

        That reads the same upside down, eh?
        That isn’t a palindrome…is there a term for such a beast?

        1. Tyre quantities are always arrived at by multiplying two prime numbers, as any fule kno. Normally, its 2 x 2, but these guys got carried away.

          1. Oooh i missed that day in school.

            i guess that doop, from Futurama, is like 19×61, reading the same upside down as rightside up.

    1. Who ships tires in odd numbers??

      Boxes of biscuits have odd numbers of biscuits inside so you will buy a second box. I assume the same applies to shipping containers loaded with tires.

      1. Is that why they sell hots dogs by the dozen, but buns in pkgs of eight?

        Seriously, WTF is up w. that?

  8. i am less concerned for any loss of property from such causes, than frightened by the possibility that some unfortunate stowaways, in their attempt to find a better life, may have thus come to watery ends.

      1. Wouldn’t that be something? A salvager pries open the tire container and finds a couple of skeletons, maybe still wearing their Uniroyal factory uniforms.


  9. I don’t think the environmental impact of shipping containers is all bad news. In fact if the container lands in an area that’s not too deep it will serve as an artificial reef. Artificial reefs provide habitat and cover for fish.

  10. Unless things have gotten worse in San Francisco than I’ve heard, i truly doubt that such a tragedy occurred during this voyage to L.A..

    But i cannot help but think that somewhere, sometime just such a tragedy has happened….but who would – or could – know?

    Practically speaking, it ‘s just one more thing to worry about while stowing away in a shipping container.

  11. Somewhere on the floor of the Atlantic is a shipping container containing all of my furniture and clothing from Berlin, and 25,000 photos I took in Asia and Europe, as well as a number of pro film cameras.

    If y’all find it, I’d like the photos back. You can have the rest of it.

  12. I once read a fascinating book about the founders of This End Up furniture, “Making Waves” and their life on a Bahamian Island, and sailing about the Caribbean. She recounts a bone chilling tail of a French couple on their sail boat at sea during a storm. This was before GPS. The couple stated in their May Day that they had hit a whale, before they were never heard from again. It was surmised that they had hit a container that went overboard and had not fully submerged.

    1. Don’t be so sure that their account was necessarily in error as to what they had struck… i myself have heard and read of mariners striking whales sleeping or resting at the surface at night…not always with fatal results, thankfully…it is not entirely surprising that such collisions may happen on the open seas; remember that sailboats move silently and swiftly by night as well as by day, and that the whales don’t have lights, nor show up on the radar.

  13. I believe there are robotic creatures living on the ocean floor that scavenge what they can from such containers – much like deep-sea creatures utilize “whale fall” carcasses – to build their army of thing-fish to take over the world.

    On another note, I once saw a sonar map of the floor of Halifax (NS) harbour. There was a trail of little white dots leading from the mouth of the harbour to the container terminal. When I asked what these were, someone told me they were cars that had been damaged at sea and were just pushed overboard before they docked. Volvos, no less!

  14. Actually I’ve someone in my immediate family in the merchant navy and have been told that going anywhere near storms in the era of satellite uplinks and GPS’s pretty much doesn’t happen ever if they can help it, and that loosing containers overboard is actually extremely rare.

    Think of it this way – take a cargo that’s both extremely common and extremely cheap (considering all the things that can go in containers) – bananas. A fully loaded shipping container of bananas is worth about 2 million dollars. Just one. So basically they just don’t take any chances. Ever notice you hardly ever hear stories of shipwrecks during hurricane season? That’s not by accident. Sure everybody worth their salt has insurance, but you can bet your bottom dollar that they do everything to control those insurance costs.

  15. Cory had mentioned this (containers getting lost in the sea) in “For the Win”. Just mentioning that because the book was a great read.

  16. I had a friend who taught sailing in Sydney, who also sailed around the north of Australia, through to India and South Africa and (single handedly) to South America and then to the USA.

    She said that she always used steel hulled boats because she knew of quite a few people who had come a cropper after hitting what they believed to be containers which hadn’t sunk.

    She said that hitting them with a wooden hulled boat was pretty much the end of your trip…if not worse.

  17. My summer internship was with a defence firm, to look into ways that satellite data could be used by poor nations to police their fisheries. While I was there the head accountant, who used to work for Toyota, told me that lots of containers where lost at sea. They’re designed to sink, so as to not form a shipping hazard, but if the material in the is buoyant it will float. So I looked into salvage. Turns out, it’s not that lucrative when you have to go out and pick up the stuff.

    The accountant also told me that he’s seen containers get smashed flat by waves. Food foot thought.

  18. This is interesting, and of course, the stuff has environmental impacts.

    If you are really interested in this, you might want to research the quantity of military and civilian vessels sunk during World War 2. THOUSANDS of oil tankers and warships were sunk… some with seawater in their holds, but many with oil. They have been corroding on the sea floor for 70 years, give or take. Ammunition and various hazmats are in the mix, too.

  19. Hi all, i am in the shipping and freight industry and this is a serious issue which causes damage to life, ship, property etc.. Most of the time, such incidents occur due to the exporters/shippers not declaring the correct weight of the cargo to the shipping line, based on which they plan the loading of the containers on the ship..

    Imagine if there were 2000 containers on a ship, logically the heavy boxes should be stacked first and then on top of that the light ones.. If the light ones are mis-declared as heavy and vice-versa which is mostly the case, there will be such incidents..

    Please check out my article that i wrote in my blog about this very same item.. http://shippinginsouthafrica.wordpress.com/2009/01/12/importance-of-declaring-the-right-cargo-weight-on-the-ship/

    Hariesh Manaadiar

  20. I have recently been reading a book of 28,800 bathtub play toys was lost at sea in a container in 1992.The author who is a beach comber followed the path os said ducks.There is speculation that these toys made it through the Bering Straight and were found in Maine and England.This Cotainer was lost in the Nothern Pacific ocean near the international Dateline on its way from China to Seattle.Some of these ducks,beavers and turtles have been recovred and there happens to be a bounty on them of $1,000 for each one found.The author stated that the ones found on an Isthmus in the gulf of Alaska had lost color fron the sun and were brittle to the touch in some cases.The main impact in this loss is the plastic degrading and splintering to make flotsam that remains for hundreds of years floating on or just below the surface.This in turn is making it’s way into the food chain and contaminats from plastics are stored in the fatty tissue of sea life.From the top of the food chain to the bottom,and a study on the effects of consumption of this sea life by humans is left unstudied.There have been Nike Shoes lost in containers and just about anything else we consume.It is cheaper as of now for China to abandon their containers in the U.S.A. rather than send them back empty.You can buy these containers and many are being used to make living quarters from them.It is a sad day when this is how the world deals it’s commodities and does’nt think of the end game..

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