What happens when a given vessel – cruise ship, container ship, oil tanker, or anything – isn’t worth refitting? If you’re the former soviet navy, you dump it an empty bay to rust away. Private enterprise is usually a bit more motivated to recoup salvage dollars, however – giant ships are after all giant repositories of recyclable metals that are worth something if they can be recovered cheaply enough.
And that’s where a process called “shipbreaking” begins. Ships are pushed up onto third-world beaches where armies of subsistence-wage laborers cut them apart in generally dangerous fashion. The beaches are wastelands of pollution – oil, chemicals, and rust – and the work is as dangerous as you’d think it would be – blowtorches, jagged metal, 100ft drops, and fuel tanks full of explosive vapors conspire to kill or injure many shipbreakers every year. Here’s a quote that highlights the issues around one example, the French warship Clemenceau, decommissioned in the seventies, and pictured above:
…environmental activists of Greenpeace and other organizations managed to break the tight security and board the ship to shout slogans against it being sent to India, where impoverished workers would break down the toxic ship, with its 500+ tonnes of asbestos. [India Together]
Its an industry that nonetheless creates striking imagery – an endless row of enormous rusting hulks littering a beach – presented below are satellite-eye views of two of the biggest yards, Chittagong in Bangladesh (Wikipedia), and Alang in India (Wikipedia). Play around in the Google Map below – you can see a bunch of different kinds of ships, the scrap heaps on the beach, and oil running off into the ocean in rivers.
When we were in Bangladesh, we narrowly missed an opportunity to go to Chittagong – turns out we were glad we didn’t as the bus managed to run over and kill a small child en route, and then nobody actually managed to get into the shipyards (foreigners and their cameras are persona/camera non grata).
Here’s a blog post and a pile of great pictures from someone who did go and who got in – Ship Breaking Yards in Chittagong. Here’s another great blog post that traces the history of the SS Norway, and catalogs its dismantling on the beaches of Alang – “End of a Nautical Icon.”
And, here are the yards. First up: Alang.
Edit: There’s a minor facility outside of Gadani, Pakistan:
Edit: If you’re a satellite fetishist like myself, you may also enjoy: