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Waking up to a shipwreck

It's not every morning you look out and see 8,000 tons of steel on its side on the beach

by Winifred Bird

It’s not every morning that a 169-meter-long ship gets knocked over by a giant wave and lands like a beached whale virtually outside the front door of your quiet seaside home.

But that’s just what happened on, of all days, Friday the 13th of November this year.

The ill-fated Ariake had set out from Tokyo the previous evening bound for Okinawa. By 5 a.m. it was making its way through a storm off the shores of southern Mie Prefecture when it was blindsided by a huge rogue wave.

As the boat listed from the impact of countless tons of North Pacific, its cargo — including, among more weighty items, a consignment of the latest issue of the popular manga, Jump — broke free, slid to one side, and dragged the starboard half of the boat underwater.

The captain then maneuvered the crippled ship as close to the shore as he could. By 10 a.m. that morning, all seven passengers and 21 crew had been safely plucked from the deck by a rescue helicopter, but the vessel itself was here to stay, like a rather large nautical gnome suddenly camped out in one’s rosebed.

Though described as a “ferry,” that word perhaps fails to convey the immensity of the broken beast that now dominated the shoreline. With its bow to the beach and its rust-red nether-regions exposed to the sky, the Ariake looked like a humongous bath toy capsized in a puddle of water.

Soon the ship — and the little citrus-farming town of Mihama on whose doorstep it had landed — were darlings of the national news networks. Television trucks flocked in, cars with exotic license plates from faraway places lined the coast road — and just about everyone in town moseyed down to the beach to reflect on the terrible power of the sea.

“Give me your 7,910-ton hulks,” the angry waves seemed to say. “I will topple them with a mere flick of my finger.”

And who could blame us for picnicking in front of the red giant, or choosing the sea wall as a venue for a romantic date?

As one 90-year-old neighbor said, this was “the most exciting thing to have happened in Mihama since a Russian ship mistakenly sailed into the mouth of a nearby river and sank — a very long time ago.”

Meanwhile, though, a more sinister aspect of the story was surfacing on the watery horizon.

The day after the shipwreck, Mihama was enveloped in a cloud of cold, oil-scented fog, as if the whole town had been turned into an open-air motorcycle repair shop. Fuel from the ship’s 500,000-liter tank was pouring out of the now-horizontal smokestack and into the ocean.

By the following Monday all fishing had been halted across an area far and wide — especially bad news for those who catch spiny lobster, a staple of the upcoming New Year’s feast season.

On the Tuesday, Nov. 17, I headed down to the Kumano fisherman’s cooperative to find out more. Makoto Mabe, 57, the bronzed owner of three fishing boats, was leaning on a counter in the cozy two-cat office. He’d just finished removing a large net from the water near the ferry.

“On Sunday I tried to fish,” he said. “When we pulled up the catch there was just a little oil on the nets. But then we threw the fish into buckets of icy salt water, and a thin slick of oil rose to the top. I can’t sell that in Tokyo. I hope they get rid of that oil spill asap,” he said.

But how to get rid of all that blended diesel and heavy oil spread over 3 sq. km of choppy ocean?

When I put that question to Masahiro Ichijo of the Japan Coast Guard, he assured me that a three-pronged attack was already under way. As the daily crowd of beachside observers watched, Nippon Salvage Company had parked a large black barge next to the ferry, cut a hole in its side, and started sucking out the remaining fuel.

Meanwhile, another company, the Maritime Disaster Prevention Center (MDPC), was sponging up some of the mess with 20-meter-long “skimming nets.” (“Let’s go fishing for oil” is how one company’s Web site puts it.)

To deal with what remained after skimming, MDPC was spraying arcs of water onto the slick and driving small boats around to break it up (think eggbeaters in a soup of oily ocean). Once it was thinned out and broken up, said Ichijo, it would evaporate and degrade over time.

“There are also chemical dispersants that could be used, but the public doesn’t like those,” Ichijo said. “We prefer to use the power of nature to deal with this.”

“The power of nature” had a nice, reassuring ring, so I asked him if he was worried about the black kites (Milvus migrans) and seagulls I’d noticed diving for fish in the area (I also noticed a drunken fishermen casting his line directly in front of the ferry, but that’s another problem altogether).

He paused for a moment, then finally said, “It’s probably a sign that the sea is already pretty clean.”

In fact, no one but me seemed too worried about the hawks. Wildlife groups told me the first concern during an oil spill is for seabirds or other animals that literally swim in the fuel and become “oiled.” Thankfully, due to the relatively small quantities released, and the fact that it was not crude oil, there were no reports of black kites down. Because they dip only their feet in the water when fishing, it seems they are less at risk.

In a situation like this, though, sensitive shore habitats, coral reefs, wetlands and marshes are also of concern. But here we were lucky again: Mihama is lined with pebble beaches and has little coral. In any case, currents and the wind had fortunately taken the oil away from the shore.

Yet more than a month later, oil is still dribbling from the marooned ship and local fishing boats are still docked. Ichijo estimates it will be the end of the year before all the fuel is sucked out. Only then will the task of removing the ferry begin.

Two options for that are under discussion, he says: either right the boat and pull it away (though it could sink), or cut it up and bring the bits to shore for disposal.

Either way he estimates the job will take about a year to complete — so while the TV trucks may be long gone, it seems my neighbors and I still have plenty more ferry-watching to look forward to.