TU Delft Delta MSC Zoe Pony container plastic
One of the containers that fell of the MSC Zoe last week carried thousands of My Little Pony toys, many of which are still adrift. They could help oceanographers better understand ocean currents. (Photo: @theprairieponys and @bytheoceanweunite)

The 281 shipping crates that fell from a container ship in the North Sea last week could be a blessing in disguise for oceanographers, says Delft researcher Caroline Katsman.


Dozens of containers with items including flat-screen televisions, little plastic My Little Ponies and IKEA furniture have washed up on Dutch islands in the North Sea after a ship of the freight company MSC lost part of its cargo in heavy seas last week.

It is an ecological disaster, but also offers a great opportunity to learn more about ocean currents, Delft oceanographer Dr Caroline Katsman of the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences says. “The contents of the lost containers may yield interesting information, just like the debris from Fukushima did.”

‘We can use this to fine-tune our models’

Months after a tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and damaged the nuclear plant at Fukushima, radioactive debris was found along the coast of North America. With so much still to learn about the currents and swells at sea, disasters like this are a windfall for oceanographers. “With information about the origin of these objects and where the stuff washes up after a certain time, we can fine-tune our models,” says Katsman.

“Though I must say, having just come back from holiday I am a bit overwhelmed by the news. I haven’t got a clear picture yet of the situation in its entirety and what it could mean for our research. But yes, it has potential.”

Katsman has asked the Directorate-General of Public Works and Water Management (Dutch: Rijkswaterstaat) to save all footage of the debris for her, including the exact geolocation so that she and her colleagues have as much information as possible to work with later.

Thousands of little plastic My Little Pony toys

At least one of the containers carried thousands of little plastic My Little Pony toys, many of which are still adrift. It brings back memories of the 28,000 rubber ducks that were released into the ocean in 1992 after a shipping crate was lost at sea on its way to the US from Hong Kong.

The ducks made it halfway around the world, washing up on the shores of Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia, the Arctic and Scotland. The ducks are now known as the ‘Friendly Floatees’ by researchers who have tracked their progress over the years.

Needle in a haystack

So will Katsman and colleagues be traveling around the world to see where the little plastic ponies wash up? “I haven’t made plans to do so yet,” Katsman says laughingly.

True, it may be looking for a needle in a haystack. But if, in a few years from now, washed up ponies are being reported at the other side of the world, the information would be useful, Katsman confirms.

But looking at the pictures that beachcombers have uploaded online, her eyes caught some slightly less mediagenic objects: IKEA chairs. “At sea, they will be partly submerged, so they won’t be moved much by the wind. Their wanderings will be mainly defined by ocean currents.”

Debris Malaysia Airlines

That there still is a lot to be learned about how objects are transported across the oceans became painfully obvious over the last few years in the wake of the airline disaster when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from the radar in 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. It is believed to have crashed somewhere in the South China Sea or in the Southern Indian Ocean.

Several pieces of debris confirmed to be from the aircraft washed ashore in the western Indian Ocean in 2015 and 2016. Katsman: “Scientists have been trying to use that information in ocean current models to backtrack the origins of the debris and thus the crash location of the airplane. But they have as yet been unsuccessful.”

How is it possible that a ship loses this many containers?

For this question we contact Hans Hopman, Professor of Ship Design at the TU Delft Faculty of Mechanical Maritime and Materials Engineering. He says that it is exceptional for such a large number of containers – 281 in total ( media earlier reported 270 ) – to get lost at sea in one single event.

“Mostly when a vessel loses containers, it only loses a few at a time. On average, every year about 750 containers (or TEUs, Twenty Foot Equivalent Units) are lost worldwide. With 130 million containers transported each year, this number is negligible. From an economic perspective that is.”

‘This disaster could increase society’s call for more security measures’

“From a safety and ecological perspective it is a different story. I would not be surprised if this disaster off the Dutch and German coast will increase society’s call for more security measures.”

“For now it is speculation what caused this disaster. Usually things like this occur due to a combination of factors. Maybe the ship had to turn, and in combination with strong wind and waves this may have caused the ship to tilt, putting pressure on the attachment points of the containers. The containers are attached to one another at the corners with twist locks. In addition, the first 3 to 4 layers are also secured against horizontal displacements by lashings.”

“It is likely that a number of the securing devices have failed or were broken due to exceeding transverse acceleration levels. In addition, it may be that also some containers at the bottom of the container stacks on deck have collapsed, destabilising the rest. Many things may have happened.”

Is it possible to prevent these losses from occurring, and if so how? “Adding more securing devices or making them stronger could be an answer. Yet any measure that will lead to more time loading and unloading the ship will cost shipping companies a lot of money. One could also think of tightening sailing procedures such as speed reduction during certain meteorological conditions to prevent unwanted roll motions of the vessel.”