Beached whales

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

08 February 2016


It has been a strange start to the year in the North Sea with around 25 sperm whales having beached and died on shores in the UK, Netherlands and Germany. The cause of the strandings has mystified scientists but some are blaming submarine sonar or magnetic disturbance from offshore wind farms as possible causes. Last week another ‘whale’ became beached when the 19,100teu CSCL Indian Ocean grounded in the Elbe on its way from Felixstowe to Hamburg. Apparently the grounding was caused by a loss of steering the cause of which has still to be determined. Attempts to tow the ship off have so far failed so over the weekend work has been going on removing fuel from the vessel and dredging a possible escape route ready for another attempt on Tuesday as tide heights rise. According to an Elbe pilot interviewed by Spiegel Online, the pilot onboard managed to ‘park the ship on the hard shoulder’ probably using the ship’s thrusters since steering would have been impossible. Like the sperm whales, CSCL Indian Ocean has become a brief tourist attraction and drawn crowds of onlookers. Several thousand came to gawp at the ship over the weekend causing long tailbacks and a boost in trade for local cafes and bars. Not exactly the sort of publicity that shipping had in mind when several organisations have been pushing for a raised profile for the industry this year. Soon the ship like the whales will have been removed and probably forgotten by the public, but the incident highlights a problem that these large box ships are imposing on ports. The loss of steering could have caused the vessel to ground anywhere and possibly block the river and the port of Hamburg – a point that was picked up on by Lower Saxony's Environment Minister Stefan Wenzel who believes that the severely underused deep water terminal at JadeWeserPort should be used for such ships. He may be right but the loss of traffic by Hamburg would be a hard blow and could jeopardise the port’s own future. The giant box ships were supposed to be the economic saviour of operators but few if any run at anywhere near full capacity and are probably more of a drain than the smaller vessels they are displacing. If the ships have the same effect on ports then their value surely has to be questioned for the greater benefit of all.