The MV ZIM Kingston incident brought near-disaster to killer whale critical habitat: more questions than answers

The ZIM Kingston incident has regrettably added to our experiential history of marine incidents, and illustrates the potential for disaster to strike.

It is November 24, 2021, and the MV ZIM Kingston still lies at anchor off Victoria, waiting for a port berth to safely dock and unload its mixed cargo of kitchen appliances, industrial chemicals, yoga mats and spoiled foods. A version of this article was first published in The Province on November 4, 2021.

The stricken, 292m long container ship, MV ZIM Kingston, lies anchored 8 km south of Victoria, BC. Having first lost 109 containers off the western entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the early hours of October 21, 2021, two days later she was in flames while at anchorage on Constance Bank, where she still sits, awaiting clearance to leave for parts unknown.

Confusion swirls as to what happened, but rough weather is believed to have played a critical role during the initial phase. 

Cargo ship covered in smoke with burned shipping containers
MV Zim Kingston. Photo by Canadian Coast Guard.

Prior to the initial incident involving the loss of containers, the vessel was plying international waters 70 km west of the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait. She was in a holding pattern (in a procedure referred to as ‘loitering’) for approximately 20 hours, in gale force winds of around 35 knots and gusts of 100 knots, amidst 20-foot waves. On Tuesday, October 19, the ship had been granted permission to anchor off Victoria, on Constance Bank, with an Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) of 17:00 pm Friday, October 22. At this stage, it is not clear why, given the kinds of conditions the vessel was experiencing on the open ocean, the offer of safe anchorage was not advanced, and the vessel tried to ride out the storm on the high seas.

At around 12:30 AM Friday, October 22, during what one Canadian meteorologist has described as a ‘monster storm’, with the ship listing at a reported 35 degrees, an estimated 109 containers went overboard (initial reports had it at 40 containers). The damaged ship then sailed to the Constance Bank anchorage, with fire breaking out a day later on the upper container deck. A number of containers burned for several days before the blaze was eventually brought under control, thanks, in large measure, to the fortuitous presence of two Maersk Offshore Supply Ships (OSS) at Ogden Point in Victoria. Potassium amylxanthate (C6H11KOS2) was one hazardous chemical in an affected container; it is listed as flammable, corrosive, an irritant, and an environmental hazard.

It is unclear as to why the ship loitered in the open ocean in very rough weather, instead of proceeding to safe anchorage in Canada, as was offered. Why did the ship not avail itself to laps on the so-called ‘racetrack’ area off Port Angeles, as other vessels often do to ride out storms? 

After losing containers and sustaining damage at sea, why was the ship directed to head for a heavily populated area when it was known to have containers filled with hazardous materials on board? Were extra precautions taken to ensure protection for Southern Resident killer whales, within whose Critical Habitat the damaged, blazing vessel was anchored? Why have marine oil spill containment booms not been placed around the stricken vessel, as a protective measure (presumably because of rough water)? 

Given the notable increase in transoceanic trade, additional questions emerge regarding mixed-cargo container shipping practices, including:

  • Should we allow mixed cargoes that include hazardous materials in large container ships?
  • Should extra precautions be required for vessels with hazardous materials on board, e.g., escort tugs, or priority clearance to anchorage for safety reasons?
  • Are seagoing vessel crews sufficiently trained and equipped to deal with fires or spills at sea?
  • Should we upgrade the authority of Vessel Traffic Service officers, by granting them the authority to direct marine traffic to particular ports or anchorages? 

The ZIM Kingston incident has regrettably added to our experiential history of marine incidents, and illustrates the potential for disaster to strike. When (not if) the next maritime accident happens, we should not be surprised and left scrambling. We need to act now to reduce the likelihood of marine incidents, ultimately by being better prepared. We need to ensure that we not only act on behalf of the crew, the ship and its cargo, but to firmly ensconce the safety and well-being of Indigenous communities and at-risk species like our beloved killer whales. These are relevant questions to ask ourselves, the shipping sector, and government authorities alike. 

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