Under the sea: Life on a lost shipping container


34 Responses to “Under the sea: Life on a lost shipping container”

  1. kylerconway says:

    Reminds me of this: http://craphound.com/ftw/

  2. Anonymous says:

    The containers are absolutely not air tight, and highly water resistant when in good condition and stacked upright. Depending on cargo density they may float a while, but almost all do sink fairly quickly. I remember several containers washing up along Cape Cod Bay years ago, but they fell off a barge only a mile or two off the beach.

    As to insurance, read the back of a bill of lading. Unless there is cargo insurance purchased seperately, most people recover surprisingly little. For more information on that subject see cargolaw.com

    As far as hopping container to container, there are a few things to remember – first, the contaienrs tend to fall off in groups, not in any even distribution. Second, most ships travel great circle routes, so a ship going from LA/Long Beach to Asia will often pass near the Aleutians, so you have very different conditions for creatures to deal with. With all of the new ballast water and other discharge regulations coming into force I would worry much more about deliberate releases of pet fish and that kind of thing than I would wild fish hopping container to container or riding in ballast tanks.

    Interesting article, the condition of the container is impressive after seven years submerged.

  3. justm3 says:

    The Farallon Marine Sanctuary will fine shipping companies if they lose containers in the Gulf of the Farallons. This happened last year when a container ship lost 4 containers as he approached SF Main Ship Channel. These containers were tracked as they drifted towards Stinson Beach. One of these containers had a huge corner ripped open, yet it continued to drift off, until it drifted over Duxbury Reef, and landing onto the beach at Bolinas. I was contracted by the diving company that was hired to find those containers. After weeks of searching, we never found another one. Those containers traveled over 9 miles and were still seen from the surface.

    A container was pushed off the Oakland docks earlier last year, and floated off into the shipping channel, where it became a hazard of navigation. They shut off ships from entering the Port of Oakland, until that container was located. I was lucky that time, found it in 40 minutes, the salvage company paid me 4K, imagine what they charged to oversee the whole operation.

    So to answer the questions about the buoyancy of the containers, yes they can float for great distances before sinking. There was a San Diego Long Range boat that hit one, disabled the boat and ended their trip. So they are quite a hazzard.

  4. woid says:

    There’s a current book that’s all about stuff that’s lost at sea, and I’m in the middle of reading it:
    “Moby-Duck” by Donovan Hohn.

    It takes off from the loss of thousands of plastic bath toys at sea (including “rubber” duckies). The writer developed an Ahab-level obsession about them, tracing their route, going out to find them, and branching out into fascinating tangents about climate change, plastic junk, environmental politics, and much more.

    I’m about a third of the way in, on a trip to the remote Alaskan Islands where hundreds of thousands of tons of trash litter the beaches. Great book, highly recommended.

    Here’s the NY Times review that turned me on to the book (hope you don’t hit the paywall…):

  5. Anonymous says:

    Awesome interview! Go, science!

  6. Palomino says:

    I respect you Maggie, I don’t personally know you but look forward to reading most of your posts, you remind me of one of my professors.

    But I’ve always had a problem with this up-and-coming phrase: “and why what we don’t know could hurt us”.

    Is EVERYTHING I don’t know potentially going to hurt me?

    It’s all about discovery, and most of the things we discover helps us, not hurts us.

    Maybe it’s all about verbiage, I believe in moving towards.

    “and what we want to do is discover what environmental impact, if any, THIS container may be creating”.

    I worked for Crowley Marine and tracked shipping containers. They are all numbered and can be traced through just about every step, like a UPS package. The container in question IS traceable and so is it’s contents, if accurately listed, which brings me to my main point:

    I’m more interested in the insurance side of this. Some of these containers can be worth millions, aren’t they insured? Does anyone get paid for their loss and if so, why isn’t the settlement being used to retrieve these containers? If there is insurance involved, are some of the containers contents faked and not contain what’s listed on the manifest/shipping order? I see a huge money making opportunity here.

    • penguinchris says:

      I think recovery was discussed last time this was on BB. This container contains tires which, while probably fairly valuable, are probably not salable once immersed in sea water for weeks. They could maybe be recycled, but considering that the recovery cost would be huge, you’d certainly not be making a profit after that.

      Most containers contain common contents (heh heh) that are mundane and not particularly expensive. It’s not like there are thousands of shipping containers filled with sunken treasure out there.

      I guess there are probably a few particularly valuable containers, but to be able to pinpoint the location of them and then recover them in deep water that virtually no one can even access is a bit of a stretch.

      And who’s to say that particularly valuable containers *haven’t* been recovered? Although if you’re shipping something that priceless, hopefully you’ll spring for the extra cost involved so that your container isn’t the one on the top with the loose attachment…

    • Anonymous says:

      >#4 • Palomino

      >I’m more interested in the insurance side of this. Some of these >containers can be worth millions, aren’t they insured?

      One would assume so.

      >Does anyone get paid for their loss and

      If it’s insured, then yes.

      >if so, why isn’t the >settlement being used to retrieve these containers?

      >Who’s going to rent an entire specialized ocean going vessel and >go cruise around looking for a forty foot box in thousands of >mile of ocean? Besides, it could easily have been destroyed in the course of being swept off.

      >If there is insurance involved, are some of the containers >contents faked and not contain what’s listed on the >manifest/shipping order?

      You would need to somehow know in advance which boxes would fall off.

      >I see a huge money making opportunity here.

      It’d be simpler to document a few extra boxes going on, and then claim they fell off. If this started happening a lot to one ship or one guy, questions would arise.

      • Palomino says:

        Anon, you bring up good points w/o suggestions.

        I believe salvage and international water laws are mind numbing. Maybe there is a period of time where the container still has a legitimate owner with rights, namely the insurance company.

        Yes, I believe there might be a huge business in this, they already do it on land, little tiny abandoned storage units selling at high prices, contents unseen.

        Depending on what the contents might be, I’m certain there have been floaters that damaged or sank other vessels or floated ashore.

        Why not invent some form of flotation device? Or a beacon attached to a line? I think I already know the answer, the contents are most definitely destroyed. But hey, some of these containers are making nice homes for some people.

        So I think the issue is salvage rights and issue of ownership. If someone owns it and wants it to stay on the bottom of the ocean, even if they don’t have the faintest idea where it is, then so be it.

        I trained on an Anchor Retrieval vessel. I asked the same thing you did concerning these containers, “Who’s going to rent an entire specialized ocean going vessel and go cruise around looking for an anchor”?

        To that I say, “There’s a vessel for that”. Supply and demand will create a market for these containers in the near future.

    • RebNachum says:

      But I’ve always had a problem with this up-and-coming phrase: “and why what we don’t know could hurt us”.

      I emphatically agree, but to be honest I was logging on specifically to say that this is the first time I’ve heard/seen this phrase without wincing. (That’s meant to be a compliment: Ms. MK-B’s clarity and calm (and irrepressible enthusiasm) are two of the reasons I read BB.) (Well, three.)

      • Palomino says:

        I tend to agree with you in this context and exchange of information and ideas. I’m finding nice insight in some of the comments.

        So maybe it’s more about realizing some issues need to be considered in a more insightful way. And I’ve always had a fear of becoming complacent, maybe that’s Maggie’s point?

        I’m working on assuming my assumptions.

    • Anonymous says:

      >> “…we don’t know could hurt us.
      Is EVERYTHING I don’t know potentially going to hurt me?
      Maybe it’s all about verbiage, I believe in moving towards”

      You’re re-defining the definition of the word, “could” simply to suit your opinion by tying it to, “…EVERYTHING…” So yes, it is about verbiage and using a word like, “could” is quite appropriate, since the entire article (very interesting and engaging by the way) expresses either/or/maybe ideas and concepts. If Maggie Koerth-Baker had used a phrase like, “…will hurt us.” than your EVERYTHING query would make more sense.

  7. Wave Tribe says:

    Great article, I ship product from China a few times per year and I always worry that this will happen. I’d like to make more products but it isn’t competitive.

  8. Thebes says:

    Barely floating shipping containers are suspected of sinking an occasional sailboat. It is theorised that the steel corners can hole a fiberglass hull and the ballasted vessel can sink under the surface before crew below can escape. From what I understand this may happen to a couple ocean-going sailboats per year. Anyway it seems a more likely way of them causing death than human trafficking concerns.

    • Palomino says:


      I collide with a floating container sinking my $300,000 sail boat in about an hour. I’m able to launch my dingy then photograph all of the containers information and my actively sinking vessel.

      I have tried to research the above scenario and the conclusion is:

      For the container to float, and since it’s a squared object, the conditions would have to be exact and the container and it’s contents exact in ratio and distribution. The moment the container is not able to maintain that exact balance to stay afloat, down it goes.


  9. cinemajay says:

    My close friend’s parents and younger brother moved to Australia 15 years ago (his Dad was relocated for a work assignment) and a container holding all of their personal belongings (photos, family videos, etc.) went overboard in a storm. His younger brother was virtually “erased” from the family history and they spent years tracking down pictures from relatives to make new albums.

    In the end his father’s employer had insurance which covered the monetary loss, but of course no once can replace his mom’s wedding dress, their grade school artwork, or the only copies of the short films he and I made in high school.

  10. Brock Lawbster says:

    “Like all shipping vessels, Med Taipei was loaded down with 40-foot-long metal containers”

    Not trying to nitpick…wait, yes I am trying to nitpick. There are a huge number of cargo vessels (possibly even the majority by tonnage) that do NOT carry containerized cargo. Oil tankers, chemical tankers, bulk (ore/grain/etc) ships, LNG tankers, timber ships, heavy lift ships, Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off) ships for carrying vehicles, etc. The list goes on and on.

    Containerization has certainly had a huge impact on maritime shipping, but it has not necessarily marginalized every type of ship.

  11. hatchclown says:

    “If there is insurance involved, are some of the containers contents faked and not contain what’s listed on the manifest/shipping order?”

    Having read about human trafficking, I can’t get the fear out of my head that some of the lost shipping containers may have contained people. This possibility entered my mind when I first read about this research project back in March. I also misread the title of this post. I thought it read “Life lost on a shipping container.” That didn’t help much.

    Doing some light searching I found at least one company is developing measures to prevent this.

    • Anonymous says:

      Neat idea, but who’s going to pay for it? Yet another brilliant move by a military contractor, I think. Also, sounds like magic. Detects drugs and food and water and humans but not animals?

      How about enforcement? I’m pretty sure that there’s already a lot of bribes thrown around in human trafficking anyway.

    • mn_camera says:

      GateKeeper USA had me going until I looked at another article on their site. Screening 100% of all containers is not, repeat, NOT a useful security measure.

      Why is that?

      You might well ask.

      If we’re concerned about “radiologic weapons” (nukes or “dirty bombs”) then what’s to stop someone from rigging one with a decent quality GPS set to trip a trigger maybe 300 meters from dockside? Kind of defeats the purpose of having containers screened on offloading, wouldn’t you say?

    • Palomino says:

      My heart jumped into my throat and my bile churned, every one of my follicles screamed; your mention of human cargo and shipping containers slipping into the ocean, (noticed or unnoticed), reminded me of a great piece in the New Yorker titled “An Honest Exit”.

      Then there’s “Dying to Leave” on Wideangle – http://www.pbs.org/wnet/wideangle/episodes/dying-to-leave/video-full-episode/1126/

      I feel a nightmare brewing.

  12. GeekMan says:

    “But squid caught in Monterey are taken to a packing company, shipped to China for processing, and then shipped back to Monterey to be sold as Monterey squid.”

    This just blew my mind, in a bad way.

    • info says:

      Sound like a possible business opportunity in the US.

    • mark zero says:

      I also don’t like that seafood gets shipped overseas to be processed. I remember looking at a pouch of salmon that advertised being caught in Alaska, etc., and discovering it was a “Product of Thailand.” This concerned me because it was soon after the 2004 tsunami, and I was worried about anything that might be contaminated by the then-compromised aquaculture over there. But the president of the company replied to my email and told me that virtually all the factories that put fish into those kinds of pouches are in Thailand. That’s how I got into the habit of always checking my seafood labels, on cans, fresh, or otherwise.

  13. holtt says:

    Awesome story. This former oceanography tech says, “Go Science!” like someone else did earlier.

  14. querent says:

    I think the hypothesis that such containers lost along shipping routes could form bridges from port to port for bottom dwelling creatures is neat. In the sense that it is an interesting and believable hypothesis that I didn’t come up with.

    • Anonymous says:

      I interpreted the “harbor” as a harbor for creatues, such as a deep sea basin, or something.

      It sounds nearly impossible to have that many containers to actually create a path from one real port to another.

      • info says:

        They can create a path as islands have created paths for people/explorers traversing the globe. It can be an accidental hit or miss situation – but probability allows for the happenstance.

  15. Anonymous says:

    very cool

  16. Anonymous says:

    “Is EVERYTHING I don’t know potentially going to hurt me?”


    Everything you don’t know can potentially hurt you.

    To quote from an old Larry Niven short story, “Everything you don’t know is dangerous until you do.”

    Things you do know are also potentially dangerous. But at least you know it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Some of the containers DO contain people. My friend was a salvage diver, she told me a gripping story about finding a container in the S. China Sea. They opened it, and out came mummies! These containers are air tight, whatever inside is un touched by water until it’s opened, and out floated all these dead Chinese people! She said it almost scared her to DEATH, she was right in front when the door opened, and was partially sucked into the container with the bodies.

    • Local 13 says:

      >These containers are air tight, whatever inside is un touched by water until it’s opened

      So which is it? Are they air tight or watertight. Although I am no expert I do handle containers
      5 days a week as a longshoreman and in my opinion they are neither. They actually have 2 small air vents to
      help prevent condensation and I would say “water resistant” is
      a more honest description.

      • urbanhick says:

        this sounds kind of sketchy to me, too. i’ve been inside plenty of containers,and they are neither airtight nor watertight – they don’t need to be. plus, if they were airtight, how would the people being smuggled inside be able to breathe?

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