Wednesday June 19, 2013 | 11:05 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

Sometimes a photo is truly worth a thousand words.

(Credit: IANS)

If that looks like a huge container ship breaking in half, it is. This is happening right now in the Arabian Sea, 200 miles south of Yemen. (

The MOL Comfort started breaking in half in rough water on Monday, June 17. Here are photos of it yesterday:

(Credit: MRCC Mumbai)

(Credit: MRCC Mumbai)

As of the last report, both halves of the ship are still floating, all crew accounted for, no reports of major oil leakage. That’s where the good news ends.

Look closer at the photos. What’s missing?

After the ship broke up on the 18th, the section marked 1 can be seen in this half:

(Compare the container colors to see for yourself.) The section marked 2 can be seen in this half:

What happened to the row in-between, #3 on the picture near the top of the page? Simple: It’s gone. That row of containers seemed to be about 6 containers high x 20 containers wide. That’s 120 containers of mass-produced consumer goods, gone into the ocean.

It may be rare for a container ship to break in two. But it’s not rare for one to lose containers overboard in rough seas. Here’s the Ital Florida coming into port in 2007:


The story of the Nike shoes from one container, and the rubber duckies from another -- found washing up all over the world -- are now legendary. Less known is the huge batch of Doritos chips that started washing up on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 2006. 

How many containers go overboard every year? Nobody knows. Shipping companies aren’t required to make public any information about cargo lost to sea in international waters.

Experts such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute estimate some 10,000 go down to the deep every year. They’ve found one resting on the seabed in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and are doing a long-term study of what happens to it.


Many, many peoples and nations reap benefits from global trade and commerce. But that comes at a cost. The trouble is, that cost may not be borne by us, but by our grandkids. Every single one of these shipping containers will eventually rust, and will eventually release its cargo. Each one is a ticking time-bomb, with who-knows-what inside.

Yet, unless a ship happens to have an accident in a protected marine sanctuary, there are no laws holding shipping companies accountable for what happens at sea. Not even for telling the authorities that anything happened at all.

By the time we start paying their costs, they’ll be long gone.

There must be a better way?

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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