/ Maggie Koerth-Baker / 1 pm Thu, Jul 7 2011
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  • Under the sea: Life on a lost shipping container

    Under the sea: Life on a lost shipping container


    (c) 2004 MBARI

    In 2004, on a trip from San Francisco to the Port of Los Angeles, the shipping vessel Med Taipei hit a patch of bad weather. Like all shipping vessels, Med Taipei was loaded down with 40-foot-long metal containers—the moving boxes that bring us stuff from all over the world and deliver our exports to other countries. In the storm, 24 of these containers fell off the Med Taipei and into the ocean.

    That's not a particularly rare event. Thousands of shipping containers are lost every year, in much the same way, says Andrew DeVogelaere, Ph.D., research coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. What makes this story remarkable is that one of the lost shipping containers was eventually found. Just months after the box fell off the Med Taipei, researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute stumbled across it while placing sensors for a survey of the ocean floor within the Marine Sanctuary.

    This year, the Sanctuary and MBARI were able to apply that good luck in a practical way, performing what is likely the first detailed study of a lost shipping container, and the effects it has on the ocean environment. I told you about this study back in March, when it was announced. Now that researchers have collected data and are starting to analyze it, I wanted to check in and find out more. In an interview last week, Andrew DeVogelaere told me about why it's difficult to study lost shipping containers, what creatures the researchers have found living on this container, and why what we don't know could hurt us.

    Maggie Koerth-Baker: Your press materials say that this is the first time the environmental effects of lost shipping containers have been studied. But containers like this one have been in use for decades. Is this really the first time? What took so long?

    Andrew DeVogelaere: That surprised me to. But I've not found any scientific publications on people studying containers. So I do think we're the first to do that. They're falling off all the time, 10,000 per year is best estimate. And the container we found is in really good condition. If we didn't know it had been down there for 7 years, we'd have guessed 4 months. But the containers aren't being found or studied because so few organizations can operate at that depth. The place we're looking at is 4,000 feet deep. Outside of oil companies operating rigs, MBARI is really one of the very few groups that's out there daily. Maybe the only one. It's still a poorly understood area. In these deep sea ecosystems we don't even know the species names for a lot of the creatures, and the way they interact with one another and the environment is still a mystery.


    MKB: Tell me about the location where the shipping container was found. What's it like? Some of the photos I saw before made it look kind of desolate.

    AD: The seafloor there [at the container site] is quite beautiful. It's not just flat sand. there's topography and sea pens sticking up and crabs. Every few inches there's something. There's beautiful, lacy sea cucumbers, and a certain kind of pink crab that's associated with this species of sea cucumber. We're going to write a little scientific note on that relationship pattern, because people hadn't really noticed it before. We did just because we were down there [looking at the container].

    People assume that we know more about the ocean than we do. There have been discussions about lost containers, especially in the European Union. They're a hazard because they'll float for a while and could sink wooden fishing boats. In the whole discussion, though, nobody talks about impacts to the deep sea. That's what we have to offer. When one of these falls off a boat it's not just a loss of merchandise, or a risk of loss of life. We're also impacting the deep sea community we don't even understand yet. And there's a societal cost to that, though how much we don't really know yet.

    MKB: How difficult is it to do this kind of research? What has to happen just so you can observe the interaction between a shipping container and this environment that it's landed in?

    AD: The first thing is the mechanical problem of getting something to that depth to look at it. Fortunately, we have MBARI. They have a big undersea robot the size of a car, tethered on 4,000 feet of cable. It's got mechanical arms. You also have to have a special ship that can maneuver to stay above the robot and manage the cable so it doesn't get tangled up. And it's only been in the last 10 years that we can go to that depth and find a specific place we've been before. That's not a trivial engineering thing to know exactly where the ship is, and from there to know where the ROV is and communicate with that from the ship. as technology advances we're going to have a lot more opportunities to study these containers. Beyond the cabled robots there are now autonomous vehicles being developed. If you can send these AUVs out in search patterns, we'll be able to find more containers.

    So technology is a problem. But the number two difficulty is that we think there could be several levels of impact. Obviously [the container] crushes everything it lands on, but there's the question of how it affects the local ecology. It looks like certain species are attracted to this container. For instance, there's a relatively large snail that seemed to be attracted to the container where it would lay these amazing egg sacks, 5 or 6 inches high. But it looked like the container was also attracting crabs and octopus that fed on the snails as they're coming and going. So, when we look, we don't see many snails but they're somehow congregating around this container and changing predation patterns. You find a lot of empty shells in the area.

    container crabs.jpg

    Two king crabs, Family Lithodidae, near a shipping container lost in Monterey Bay. The empty shells are from the gastropod Neptunea amianta. (c) 2011 MBARI/NOAA

    MKB: Before you started this study, what kinds of effects were you worried about? How did you expect shipping containers to interact with the environment they found themselves in?

    AD: It's interesting, in that when this container fell into the sanctuary there were negotiations with the shipping company about mitigating damage. They were arguing there was no impact because there was nothing living down there. Luckily, we had research going on at that depth and could say that stuff lives there and this is what it looks like.

    MKB: When we were first talking about your study on BoingBoing, both the readers and I thought about artificial reefs—how there are places where they've intentionally dumped things, like old subway cars, off the coast, and those form new habitats. It sounds somewhat like the shipping container is doing something similar, with the snails you mentioned. So I'm wondering, should we be worried about this? Are lost shipping containers a good thing?

    AD: In some ways, saying that something is positive is a bit of a judgement call. If you like one kind of species it's positive to you. If you're a diver looking for big fish, then artificial reefs are good for you. But they're not good if you're a fisherman looking for squid [whose habitats are displaced by the reefs]. In this case, we saw these scallops that were living all over the container. MBARI has something like 8,000 hours of video at that depth and we've maybe only seen these scallops a few times before. So, maybe these containers are a positive for the deep sea scallops. It's possible. At this stage in the research, I wouldn't even want to say that anything is a huge negative or positive. But we now know something is going on and we should start studying it and stop ignoring it.

    The toughest question is the issue of these containers forming stepping stones from one harbor to another across the deep sea. If you're familiar with invasive species, what prevents them from invading is often geographic breaks. Sandy surfaces can't be crossed by creatures that need a hard substrate. But these containers, falling off along shipping routes, could form stepping stones that allow creatures to move. That's just a hypothesis right now. We'd need to look at multiple containers to figure that out. But it's a hypothesis that makes sense.

    MKB: Do shipping containers affect more of the environment than just wildlife?

    AD: We don't have the results yet on this. But we took these sediment samples at different distances from the container. When you put something like that on the bottom of the ocean it affects the deep sea current and the size of sediment grains around it. We have to look at the grains we collected and see but, generally, faster currents mean larger grain size. There could be localized changes in sediments and that can impact the organisms, like which can live there.

    Also, it's a bit of a stretch with this particular container, but the sediment thing also has an impact on pollution. Pesticide in the river, for instance, it sticks to the sediment, not the water. And it sticks more to smaller particles. Like I say, that's not as big of an issue here, but it could affect other shipping containers in other situations.

    MKB: Let's talk about pollution a little bit more. Do the contents of the container matter? What's in your container?

    AD: It's full of radial tires. I have said before that I didn't think tires were that toxic and one of my colleagues got upset. I was thinking more like it's not bleach or pesticide. Relatively speaking. The other containers that were lost [at the same time as this one] and that we never found contained cardboard, hair ribbons, hospital beds, sofas. Again, on a relative scale, those wouldn't be as bad. We do have some sediment where we'll be doing chemical analyses, to see if anything is leaching out.

    One thing were were interested in is whether things were spilling out because of locks rusting after 7 years underwater. We thought we'd find something like that. In this case it didn't. It does happen though. There are famous stories of containers of Doritos that come ashore on the beach on the East Coast. Or a million bananas on the shores of the Netherlands. There's also a case where Nike shoes that were in a container spilled into the North Pacific and it became this big oceanographic study. Scientists figured out where currents were in that part of the ocean by following the shoes and where they ended up.

    MKB: So you've collected all this data about this one shipping container, and you're in the process of analyzing that data to see what you can learn. But, once you've got your results, how much of that can you really extrapolate to other containers throughout the ocean? Does this really tell you much about the bigger picture?

    AD: You're right on. Really, we took a relatively very quick look at one container. We can say some things about that one container and develop hypotheses about others. But I think we have a long way to go. As much as anything we have some ideas of potential impacts, and we think some effort should be made to start looking at other containers. Once you learn one thing you're going to have five other questions.

    Meanwhile, while we know very little about the consequences, shipping containers are being lost all the time. When we first started this, I learned some amazing things about the things we use and where they come from. For instance, here in California we're interested in eating local fish. 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. We all benefit from the things that move around in containers and I don't think we realize that it's even happening.

    MKB: So what happens next, both for you and on this larger issue?

    AD: Right now we have a lot of video. We have notes and observations we made while we were at sea. We also have the sediment samples. We're going to look at chemistry, micro-invertebrates inside the sediment, and grain size. We can see general patterns in the video, but we're going to try to get down to a more refined taxa to figure out whether the species are invasive. And we want to quantify more carefully the density of organisms around the container. And my hope is that in two to three years we'll go back and visit again and try to detect other changes. Our hope is to publish this in some journals. That always takes a lot longer, though. Within half a year we'll have the data analyzed. It will take another year to get published after that.

    On the other side, I'll be meeting with someone to look at international venues for discussing shipping container practices. We've been approached by a group from New Zealand to see how we can insert the information we do have into those ongoing discussions. There are suggestions that maybe there should be standard loading practices. Right now they don't even have to be weighed. You might be overloaded, lopsided, or heavy containers on top. And there aren't standards for how you tie them down, either. It would take longer and cost more, but it's something that's worth considering I think.

    / / COMMENTS


    1. 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…):

    2. 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.

      1. 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.)

        1. 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.

      2. 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…

      3. >#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.

        1. 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.

      4. >> “…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.

    3. 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.

    4. “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.

    5. “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.

      1. 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.

      2. 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?

    6. “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.

      1. 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.

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

    8. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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.

    9. 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.

    10. 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.

      1. Scenario:

        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.


    11. 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.

      1. >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.

        1. 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?

    12. “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.

    13. 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.

    14. 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.

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