Crazy Cargo Overboard! Oddest Cargo Ship Spills

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Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets peppering beaches near Hong Kong this week are hardly the oddest things to spill out of steel shipping containers lost at sea.

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Fly swatters bearing sports team logos coasted onto Kodiak island, Alaska, by the dozens this past May. Beachcombers at first assumed they were debris from the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, but authorities soon traced them to a cargo ship that had lost a row of containers that came loose from a cable during a Pacific crossing four months earlier. 

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Alaskan beachcombers should be keeping an eye out for Lego pieces to wash up on their beaches this year, too. Millions of the colorful, diminutive toys spilled out of containers that fell overboard in 2000 when a rogue wave hit their mother ship in the Atlantic Ocean. By now they've had time to make their way through the Northwest Passage to the chilly shores of Alaska, if calculations by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and his colleagues are correct.

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Rogue oddities riding the waves are no surprise when you consider that the international liner shipping industry carries approximately 100 million containers of cargo each year. Each container is the size of a semi-truck trailer, and the ships' decks can be stacked seven containers high. Careful distribution of weight is essential, to say the least.

Losing a few containers during big storms is nearly unstoppable. Indeed, it was July’s Typhoon Vincent that sicced the plague of plastic pellets on Hong Kong when it rocked ships and tipped six cargo containers into the sea south of the city.

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Four months after a storm off the California coast dumped 15 containers into the ocean in 2004, scientists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium discovered one of the containers was providing an unique artificial habitat for marine life—with 1,100 steel-belted radial tires still trapped inside.

"Cargo practices have since improved, but in the 1990s as many as ten thousand containers may have gone overboard each year,” Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano report in their book, Flotsametrics and the Floating World. “The largest known spill, during a 1998 typhoon, dropped three to four hundred containers into the mid-Pacific.”

Ebbesmeyer earned his street cred in this flotsam arena when he accurately modeled the arrival time and place of two separate shipments of Nike shoes lost in the Pacific in the 1990s. In the first incident, which was Ebbesmeyer’s inspiration to follow flotsam in the first place, eight containers jumped ship in transit from Korea during a mid-Pacific storm in 1990, sending adrift some 80,000 individual, unlaced shoes.

A media- and shoe-selling frenzy started when the flotilla of footwear started beaching eight months later—some 2,000 miles away on Vancouver Island, then later in Washington and Oregon. Beachcombers in the same region got their second shot at free shoes after two containers of Nike Cross Trainers were lost in 1999.

Clearly, the beached shoes qualified as treasure, at least in the minds certain entrepreneurial beachcombers. Once dried and washed with a bit of bleach, they were apparently as good as new.

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Equally unscathed were thousands of bags of Doritos that washed up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on a cool November morning in 2006. Hungry beachcombers found the tortilla chips dry—a perfectly edible snack.

In another Ebbesmeyer flotsam investigation, beachcombers in Washington suspected a plane full of hockey players had crashed when hockey gloves started stranding on local beaches in January 1996. Ebbesmeyer traced the gear to two containers of 34,000 gloves, chest protectors, and shin guards that fell from a burning trans-Pacific cargo carrier before salvage crews could get to it in late 1994.

Of all the crazy things to spill from lost shipping containers, I think the most entertaining have to be the 28,000 rubber ducks and other bath toys dumped into the drink on their way to the U.S. from China in 1992. You don't have to take my word for it, though:

Journalist Donovan Hohn chronicled his experiences tracking these wayward ducks in his book "Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them."

Photos: Generic rubber duck. Onderwijsgek via Wikimedia Commons

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