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Missing ships

A marine tragedy no one noticed

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The world of big shipping is a “strange, dark” wild west, says Basia Cummings on Tortoise. In this “dystopian” world, about 100 large ships sink or go missing every year, yet “barely anyone notices”.

Take the skyscraper-sized Gulf Livestock 1, which set off from New Zealand carrying 43 crew and almost 6,000 cattle last August. On September 2, “slap bang in the middle of the Pacific”, it got caught in a typhoon and the engine room began to take on water. The crew – many of them Filipino contractors with hungry mouths to feed at home – began to send panicky messages to friends and family. The ship was listing, the bow “jutting high into the sky”.

By the time Japanese rescue teams arrived, bloated bodies of cows were floating in the sea. Just three crew members were found. “Am I the only one?” asked the vessel’s shivering chief officer.

But at sea, insured cargo is worth more than the people aboard. Families were dumbfounded when the search was called off. The rule of law, “often so solid on land”, is “fluid at sea, if it’s to be found at all”. Gulf Livestock 1 had a history of problems, from engine trouble to an anthrax outbreak. But since its initial launch in 2002 its name had been changed four times, and its flag at least the same number – a common trick to hoodwink regulators. If it had been a plane crash, the outcry would be enormous. “Every single step of this story is an illustration of a booming industry going, it seems, rogue.”

Listen to the full episode here.