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How a 1,500-ton ocean liner turns into a cannibal-rat-infested ghost ship

Japanese fishing vessel, "Ryou-Un Maru", shows significant signs of damage after U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Anancapa fired explosive ammunition into it, 180 miles (about 290 km) west of the Southeast Alaskan coast April 5, 2012. The U.S. Coast Guard opened fire on Thursday on a derelict Japanese fishing vessel washed out to sea by last year's devastating tsunami in a bid to sink it and eliminate a threat to navigation, a spokesman for the agency said. REUTERS/U.S. Coast Guard/Handout
Reuters/US Coast Guard/Handout
The Ryou-Un Maru, a Japanese ghost ship scuttled by the US coast guard off the coast of Alaska in 2012.
By Gwynn Guilford
antarcticPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The UK is alarmed—or at least its press is. “A ghost ship carrying nothing but disease-ridden rats could be about to make land on Britain’s shore, experts have warned,” frets The Independent.

The boat under discussion—the Lyubov Orlova—hasn’t been heard from since February and March 2013, shortly after the abandoned ship was cut loose from a tug line and went adrift. The headlines reflect guesses that recent storms have sent the Lyubov Orlova reeling toward the UK. And the cannibal rats? Speculation about those come from Pim de Rhoodes, a Belgian salvage hunter, who noted the likely presence of a starving rat colony (paywall) aboard when he told the press the Lyubov Orlova is still “out there.”

How does an unmanned 1,565 ton (1,420 tonne) cruise ship just take off on its own like that?

The reasons are pretty simple. After Canadian authorities seized the craft due to her owner’s alleged $250,000 in debtsseas peaking at 18 feet (5.5 meters) snapped her towline while she was being taken to the Dominican Republic for scrapping. (She’s worth an estimated $1.1 million.)

In fact, ghost ships like Lyubov Orlova aren’t all that rare. In the last 15 years, sailors have come across at least seven “ghost ships.”

Flickr users Maggie & David (image has been cropped)
The Lyubov Orlova, in its cruise ship days.

As for why the ship’s crew would disappear, the reasons could be anything from piracy to psychiatric breaks to tax fraud (link in Italian)—or just straight-up abandonment. Take, for example, one of the most famed ghost ships—the SS Baychimo, a 230-foot fur-trading steamer whose crew abandoned her in 1931 when she became stuck in Arctic ice. For nearly 40 years, people reported sightings of the Baychimo all up and down the Alaskan coast.

Some crew disappearances remain mysterious, though. Like the Mary Celeste—the original ghost ship—the disappearance of 25 people aboard the Joyita, a virtually unsinkable vessel found adrift in the South Pacific in 1955, has never been solved. In the last decade, the fate of the crews of a trio of vessels found off the Australian coast—namely, the High Aim 6, the Jian Seng and the Kaz II—have been left largely unexplained.

Perhaps the more interesting question is how the 220 meter (720 foot) Lyubov Orlova could go missing for so long.

Screenshot from Vessel Finder
Red square indicates estimated location as of Dec. 2013.

But both De Rhoodes and the Irish coast guard already tried to find the ocean liner a slew of times last year (paywall), to no avail, as the New Scientist reports. The New Scientist explains that surveillance equipment has some pretty big deficiencies when pitted against the ocean’s vastness.

There’s a decent chance no one can find her simply because a giant wave sunk her. From 2001 to 2010, an average of 146 ships (pdf, p.10) went missing annually, 42% of which sunk. That possibility has a French environmental organization worried that the ship might release toxic elements like mercury, asbestos and fuel into the ocean.

However, the Lyubov Orlova was designed for extra buoyancy to withstand rough seas, reports the New Scientist. Plus, only two of her six lifeboats distress transmitters, which deployed upon contact with water, have gone off. So perhaps the Lyubov Orlova—and maybe even her cannibal rat passengers—are still adrift out there somewhere.

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