Slow Newscast

Lost at sea

Lost at sea

The mystery of Gulf Livestock 1, a 12,000-tonne ship that disappeared without a trace.


transcript

It’s early September, 2020. You’re listening to the sound of 12,000 tonnes worth of ship, caught in the middle of a typhoon.

This vessel – a giant of a ship, like a skyscraper lying on its side – is called Gulf Livestock 1. 

It’s carrying 43 crew, and nearly 6,000 cows – ferrying them from New Zealand, to China. 

And what you’re hearing is footage captured by one of the crew on board. 

Beyond the creaking, it’s actually quite eerily silent for what is going on: if you could see it, you’d see the bow of this huge ship jutting high into the sky, the water vanishing from sight around it, and then crashing back down again, as these walls of water batter it on all sides. 

By this point, the crew are starting to panic. 

They’re sending messages to their friends and their family. One tells a friend that they’re all starting to assemble at the highest point of the boat… the safest place. 

They’re on this mammoth vessel that suddenly seems just too fragile in the giant ocean. 

And there are questions in the air: why did this ship carrying thousands of live animals, sail straight into the eye of a typhoon? Why did the ship seem to have safety deficiencies? And why didn’t it turn back, or around? 

Well, to answer this question, I’m going to take you on a journey – to a wild west… where giant vessels regularly sink or go missing, nearly 100 a year, and where barely anyone notices. Where investigations into what went wrong and why are almost non-existent. Where the truth is lost somewhere deep in the ocean, and answers and accountability buried under obscurity and deception. 

I’m Basia Cummings, and you’re listening to the Slow Newscast. 

Harry Morrison: I was on the ship with Will, the ship that we went on together to China prior to him going on this next one. Obviously with the pandemic that hit, we had worked on boats prior to this together on the live export boats and with the pandemic hitting, obviously none of these tours were going, I was meant to be going overseas. So we decided to go back to sea, again. So, we did a trip together and we went to China.

This is Harry Morrison. Now, he works as a social worker, but he used to work on these live export ships – which is a big industry in Australia and New Zealand.

And that’s how he met the guy who would go on to become his best mate, Will Mainprize. 

Will was, in Harry’s words, a wild guy. He was 27, and guided trips around the Tasmanian outback. And he was this survivalist – he knew how to handle himself, and he had these mad adventures – like cycling solo across Pakistan. He had a sister, Emily, who was just 18 months older than him, more like a twin, she would say. 

And a girlfriend, too, who would publish these beautiful Instagram posts of the two of them, in exotic parts of the world, Will looking happy and young and carefree. “Mountain babe alert” one caption read – that sort of thing. And he was – he was very good looking, long wavy hair, very Australian. 

But like for all of us, Will had to change his plans when the pandemic hit. 

Harry Morrison: Obviously we couldn’t fly back during the pandemic, so we came back on the boat together. And then we went back to Darwin and we’re living and working there for a little while, until Will was going to go out on another guiding trip, but then that got canceled due to interstate restrictions within Australia. So then he decided to go back on a boat, a boat came through at the last minute and he went on that. 

And that last minute boat was the Gulf Livestock 1. 

Will was one of two Australians on board. There were also two New Zealanders, and the rest of the 39 crew were from the Philippines. 

Harry and Will both worked as stockmen – the person who makes sure that the cattle are being properly looked after.

Harry Morrison: It’s hard to describe the day on a boat, but, you know, it is pretty busy when you’ve got, you know, the biggest boat I’ve ever been on has had 27,000 cattle, so you can imagine how many animals are on there but, normally it’s around 5,000 cattle on each boat. So you’ve got the crew, the Filipino crew, who feed the cattle, often by hand, and then they’ll water, like they’ll make sure the waters are done, they’ll clean the pens, all those kinds of things. And then we’re just, you know, checking the cattle, if there’s any illnesses, if there’s any lamenesses, anything like that, you just make sure the cattle’s maintained and upheld and everyone’s safe on the boat. 

27,000 cattle – at sea. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? And there are lots of fierce critics of this industry, where conditions for the animals are often just horrendous, packed into pens.

And by Harry’s account, it was gruelling and often really lonely work. 

Harry Morrison: I mean, it’s pretty isolating, you’re out at sea. Normally, in normal circumstances, the longest you’re out at sea is 26 days at a time. But it varies on which country you go to.

The boats do have limited internet now, but when we started there was no internet or no phone or anything like that. So, you know, you really be out there, on your own, not so much on your own, but isolated from the rest of society.

The crew are mainly Filipino, sometimes there’s Pakistani crews. They do up to nine month contracts at a time, so they’re on there consistently for nine months. For the Filipinos, some of those men would support 13, 14 people on their wage, so for them it’s a huge thing.

But yeah, you go out to sea to work, I guess. You’re working pretty long hours normally, so yeah.

But Will was up for another trip. So, he joined the vessel. 

It departed from Napier port in New Zealand on 14 August 2020 – bound for the Port of Jingtang in China on 3 September 2020 – nearly a three week journey. 

And the boat was owned by a company called Gulf Navigation Holdings, but it was crewed by another company, and the commercial manager was another company entirely. But we’ll come back to all of that. 

After getting to China, Will was thinking of maybe moving to Egypt with his girlfriend, or maybe going to Uruguay, to work in the export industry over there. 

So far, so normal. Harry and Will were texting. But even really early on something was wrong. 

“We’re not even a day out of port and the engine is fucked,” Will wrote on 15 August. 

The rest of the messages were jokey, but there was a tension in there too.

But the ship carried on. It journeyed north, up past Papua New Guinea, skirting Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, and into the Philippine Sea. 

Harry and Will stayed in touch, until – just two days before the ship was due to reach China – the boat sailed right into the path of a typhoon, which had been brewing for days – there had been warnings issued by the Korean, Japanese and Philippines meteorological authorities. It was going to be a big one. 

“Typhoon Maysak is approaching South Korea and weather forecasters are warning that it might become one of the strongest typhoons to hit the country…”

“…heavy rain and powerful winds are battering South Korea as Typhoon Maysak makes its way up from the country’s largest island…”

News clips about Typhoon Maysak

The next time that Harry heard from Will, it was the night of 1 September, and Will was scared. Really, really scared. 

Harry Morrison: You know, I was obviously talking to Will via WhatsApp and three days out from this typhoon, he was sending me pitchy messages being like, “man, what’s going on, it’s kind of crazy, we’re hitting a Typhoon and you know, the engine isn’t going at full capacity. Like I’m pretty scared.”

Will texted Harry: “We are in the middle of a typhoon and engine control room is taking on water.”

He messaged again: “Engine is off and we are floating sideways in a huge sea.”

The ship’s captain, a man called Dante Addug, who was 34 years old, was also scared. He was messaging his wife in the Philippines as the weather worsened.

“The typhoon is so strong up to now,” he said. “I am praying for the typhoon to stop.” He complained of headaches and dizziness from the waves. 

He told her, also, that the engine had stopped after taking on water. 

And like a plane failing at altitude, these men knew that their lives were in grave danger. 

By this point, late on 1 September, Gulf Livestock 1 was mostly alone in a vast stretch of sea. 

Harry Morrison: It would have been, you know, so scary, that’s, you know, it’s just hard to imagine how large the swell would have been.

Basia Cummings: I saw a short video taken by, I think it was Lukas Orda, just showing the boat moving in the water and it’s hard to imagine how terrifying that would have been watching that.

Harry Morrison: Yeah and, to be honest, seeing a video, it’s like taking a photo of the stars, you know when you can never get that photo of the stars and it never gives it justice, it’s honestly like that. I’ve been in some large swell before and it is a lot larger than what a video can ever capture and for this situation I’m sure it’s even more extreme.

Basia Cummings: And so you said that Will was sending you messages, telling you that he was scared and that things weren’t quite right. When did you realise that something was going really wrong?

Harry Morrison: He sent a video of like the engine room taking on water. 

“Really safe… really, really safe…”

Will in his video of engine room taking on water

Harry Morrison: So he sent that video across to me via WhatsApp. And, you know, he was just saying like, “mate what’s going on? You know, the engine rooms taking on water, like we’re going into a typhoon and we’ve got one engine going.” He just said, I’m scared, I’m really scared. And for Will to say that, like, Will’s ridden a push bike through Pakistan, camping by himself for three months, you know, I’ve never heard him say he’s scared before, you know and for him to say that I was like, it really must be something serious.

Overnight, in the early morning of 2 September, at around 1.40am Tokyo time, the Gulf Livestock 1 issued a distress call. 

It was sent from around 100 nautical miles west of the Amami Archipelago, a chain of islands that snake down under Japan, in the last frontier before the great blue expanse of the Pacific ocean. The largest and deepest ocean in the world, covering around 30% of the planet. 

And there they were being battered by waters named, ironically, by Ferdinand Megellan, the Portuguese explorer, after the word for peaceful. 

All other boats in the same region had diverted as the typhoon intensified – they’d huddled along the edges of the Chinese mainland. 

Now, there’s something called the Saffir-Simpson scale, that measures the intensity of a typhoon. And if you look at the path of Typhoon Maysak, you can see it hurling down from northern Russia, down towards Japan and South Korea, the scale turning redder and redder as the wind and the turbulence gets worse. 

And where this scale gets reddest – where the typhoon was at its deadliest, was right where Gulf Livestock 1 was. 

So the question is: why did this ship head straight into the eye of a deadly storm?

Basia Cummings: Lets start with you just introducing yourself.

Ian Urbina: Sure, my name is Ian Urbina. I’m a journalist and I also run the outlaw ocean project, which is a nonprofit journalism organisation that focuses on lawlessness at sea, specifically human rights, labour and environmental abuses offshore around the world.

Ian is a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist based in Washington DC, focusing on environmental and human rights crimes at sea.

For decades, he’s investigated what he describes as “this dystopian place”, the world’s oceans, a place “home to dark inhumanities” and where the rule of law, “often so solid on land” he writes, “is fluid at sea, if it’s to be found at all.” 

Some 80% of the world’s goods are transported by sea – even more recently in the pandemic. Ships are getting bigger and bigger, and they’re loading more and more containers and more and more cattle or sheep. But that growth has not been accompanied by a system of accountability to match this super-sized industry. 

951 large vessels have sank in the last 10 years. And there were 41 losses in 2019 – the most recent figures that we could get. Of those, 15 were large cargo ships. 

41 boats – that’s a lot. Imagine 41 Airbuses – the most popular cargo plane – crashing in a year. 

And it became clear to me as I learned more about Gulf Livestock 1 – that what went wrong with the ship started long, long before it headed out to sea. It’s a complicated history but it’s one that really gives you such a revealing glimpse into this strange, dark world. 

The ship was built back in 2002, in Germany, originally as a container vessel. It was first called the Maersk Waterford – after the largest shipping company in the world. 

And then, in 2006, it changed its name to the Dana Hollandia, and was registered three times in three different jurisdictions – ‘flagged’ as it’s known – first in Antigua, then in Germany, and then in Cyprus. 

And then, it changed its name again. From 2012 to 2015 it sailed under the name the Cetus J, and was still registered in Cyprus, until 2015, when it was renamed the Rahmeh, re-registered in Panama – and then in 2019, bare with me, it was again renamed, this time as the Gulf Livestock 1. 

And at this moment, 2019, it was owned by a company called Gulf Navigation Holdings, which was based in the UAE, in Dubai, but it was still flagged in Panama. 

And, still stay with me, but Gulf Navigation holding’s chairman is Sheikh Theyab Bin Tahnoon Bin Mohammed Al-Nahyan, whose other ventures have included creating a paradise garden in Abu Dhabi, which won two Guinness world records for having the biggest number of hanging baskets in the world. So far, so weird. 

And if all of this sounds a bit mad and confusing. Well, it is. But it’s the basis for a whole industry. 

Ian Urbina: Yeah, so historically vessels had a home port. And that home port could be the UK, somewhere in the UK, or the US or Fiji or Thailand or wherever. And those vessels would record that home port on the back of the ship and they would fly the flag of their home port nation. And therefore the laws that would apply on that vessel, when the vessel was in national waters or international waters, i.e. beyond the 200 mile mark from shore, would be the laws of their home port nation.

But, in the 20th Century, mid 20th Century, late 20th Century, flags of convenience or open registries became more common. And what that meant was that the laws that would apply on your vessel, which are dictated or determined by the flag you fly – why does it have to be your home port? Why can’t it be the place that’s offering the best deal? 

Ian explained how even landlocked countries started offering up their flags to maritime vessels. And one of the biggest open registries for this? Yeah, you guessed it, it’s Panama. 

Ian Urbina: This creates a sort of race to the bottom, whereby nations began selling their flag registry licenses to ships and advertising, “hey, we bother you less, we have less rules and we’re cheaper”. But when things go awry, you start realising that the company is paying the business that runs Liberians flag to give them a license, so that Liberian flag registry, that company is not inclined to be really aggressive at doing anything that would annoy their clients. So there’s a conflict of interest here, nor are they really inclined to have the right staff to do the governance oversight, policing duties that the five registry supposedly is meant to do. 

Someone dies or is murdered or is raped or whatever, there’s a claim of illegal fishing or dumping or whatever, arms trafficking, on the ship, the flag registry has all the information and has the responsibility to investigate, but when press or lawyers or government come to the flag registry and say, “hey, give us the information. How have you investigated, did you go check on board all these things,” they say, look, we’re not at liberty to give you any of that information because we have to ask our client whether we can hand that over to you. That’s not governance, you know? And so this is the core problem of how flag registries in general are flawed. There are some good flag registries that are decently well run. But, there are a lot of really, really shady ones, and that’s where you find a lot of the worst abuses that are flying those flags.

In the case of Gulf Livestock 1, we know that since 2002 the ship has had five names, four flag changes, and that’s not unusual. 

But that’s not all: while Gulf Livestock 1 was owned by UAE-based Gulf Navigation, it was managed and crewed by a company in Germany – called Marconsult Schiffarht GMBH, but the commercial manager was a Jordan-based company called Hijazi & Ghosheh Co.

Can you imagine this level of complexity for an airplane? No, me neither. 

And for Ian, none of this is that surprising. Name changes are a really well-worn tactic in the shipping industry, and while we don’t know why Gulf Livestock 1 changed its name so many times, there could be all sorts of reasons.

Ian Urbina: Well, often what happens is a ship owner, ship operator will want to clear their – clear the ship’s name by flagging it to a new flag registry. And often when they do that, they will change the name of the vessel. And in doing those two things you often are able to, through weird quirks of maritime law, are able to wash the ship of any liens, of any financial debt that sit on – that sort of have the ship as collateral. 

So if I sold $20,000 worth of fuel to this vessel, and then the vessel left without paying its bill, and then three months later, I, through hiring the right firm, had found that the vessel was pulling into a Singapore port. And so I was going to call the Singapore port officials and say, “hey, there’s a lien, there’s debt on that vessel and they didn’t pay, so when they come in, could you lock them down and hold them until they pay up?” The problem is that if that vessel, when it arrives to Singapore, is flagged to a different nation and has a different name, then even if you know it’s the same vessel your ability to actually get the Singapore, I’m just using this as an example, but the Singapore port officials to lock it down, goes out the window. Because they don’t have the jurisdiction to lock down the ship that owes you money because that’s not the same ship. 

Basia Cummings: And are these laws quite arcane?

Ian Urbina: Yes, they are arcane, they’re contradictory, they’re murky, there are a few of them. To the extent that they even function at all, the huge problem is enforcement, right? So even good laws, strong laws as they exist offshore very often are toothless in the end because there isn’t a police force that patrols the space, the high seas. The international waters portion of the space is really a weird sort of complicated jurisdiction where it belongs to everyone and no one. And it gets only worse, when you’re talking not about the property of the ship, meaning the cargo or the ship itself, those laws for obvious property law reasons, you know, there’s a lot of money, are broken, but are even better than the laws that pertain to the people on the ship. The labour laws on these vessels are even more arcane and toothless.

Back in the sea in the early morning of 2 September, things had turned catastrophic. 

One crew member said the ship was taking on a lot of water. The boat was heavily leaning to one side – and the crew were desperately trying to dump as much of it as they could – pumping out water from the starboard side to bring the boat back up. 

Then, there was a blackout, lasting for about a minute. It was the dead of night and the emergency lights came on – and over the radios, the instruction came: “All hands, wear your lifejacket.”

But the crew knew it was too late. The waves were too high. 

By this point, a crew member said two life rafts were already in the water. 

The waves were continuing to batter the boat until one pushed this giant vessel – 134m long 20m wide – onto its side. 

It was the end of the Gulf Livestock 1’s battle against the storm. 

Harry Morrison: So we lost touch with Will and then there was like no official report or anything, but a friend that’s worked in the industry rang me up the next day and said, “look, we’ve heard that the boat went down, it put out a distress call, and it’s gone down and it’s not been seen again.”

By Wednesday afternoon, the ship’s disappearance was being widely reported in the press.

“The Gulf Livestock 1 sent a distress call as Typhoon Maysak pummelled the region with strong winds…”

News clip on Gulf Livestock 1’s disappearanceNews clips on Gulf Livestock 1’s disappearance

And at first, even when the news was confirmed, Harry wasn’t that worried… yet

Harry Morrison: It was a waiting game, we thought that these boats are pretty well equipped, with all this, with the safety stuff, you know, they have life rafts, they have what you would think is all these tracking devices, you know, you think they would have alerted the Japanese coast guard because they were in Japanese waters, and we were just hoping that they would have made it onto a life raft or even better a lifeboat, and it would just be a matter of time until they were found. 

And there was a good reason for having hope. 

That first night after capsizing, on Wednesday 2 September, a man called Eduardo Sareno – the vessel’s chief officer – was pulled out of the water alive. 

There’s this amazing, haunting footage that shows him sitting on the floor of a rescue boat, wrapped in a yellow blanket having just been plucked out of this absolutely ferocious water in the darkness by a Japanese rescue team. And he’s freezing, shivering, his head in his hands, and he asks: “Am I the only one?”

“Am I the only one?”

Eduardo Sareno, sitting on the floor of a rescue boat

Within 48 hours, two more of the 43-man crew had been found alive. 

But the week following the ship’s sinking was a difficult one. 

One of the men rescued from the water later died. 

And there were photos from the Japanese rescue effort showing the horrible, bloated bodies of cows with their legs in the air, surrounded by bits of wreckage in the water. Stuff was being recovered. 

But then, on Saturday, three days after the boat capsized and just 24 hours after the men had been pulled from the water, the Japanese authorities had to suspend their search because on the horizon another typhoon was looming and the weather was just getting impossible.

And to the families, who still had hope, this was a huge blow. 

There were still three lifeboats and a life raft out there in the water. And it was, in their eyes, far too soon to give up hope. 

When the weather settled a week later the Japanese coast guard said that the rescue effort would start up again, but no longer full-time. 

The families were dumbfounded, they looked to the response to the downing of airplanes – of MH17 – and they had assumed a similar, no-holds-barred effort would apply in this case. 

But it wasn’t so. 

One by one, family members started making pleas. To who? To anyone really, to help find their loved ones. 

This is the wife of another stockman, Emma Orda, and she made this video on 13 September:

“I’m here today, with our son Theodore, who’s only six months old and faces the possibility of never knowing his father. Each moment is a living nightmare for us. We don’t know whether our Lucas is gonna come home through the door or whether he’s actually gone forever.

“The current situation is tremendously overwhelming. However, I’m not alone, as there are nine other families feeling the heat-wrenching pain this tragedy is causing, including fellow Australians, the Mainprize family, whose son and brother, William, is also missing, along with two New Zealanders.

“To the Japanese coastguard – your ongoing search inspires our hope. I beg you to help us keep the search going, so that this nightmare can end for all of us.”

Video of Emma Ardo calling to continue searching for the missing ship

Over the coming days, more and more families released similar videos. 

“Please save my daddy and his crew, let them come home to us…”

Families of calling to continue searching for their loved ones

But it wasn’t just that the search had been abandoned too soon. The whole mission was hampered by a lack of coordination and collaboration.

Harry Morrison: There was no liaising with them and with the Japanese coast guard, so the Japanese coast guard did the search. I can’t remember, I think they did three or four days, and then another typhoon came in and then they had to suspend the search and then they went back out to do it. They had also been hit by the typhoon as well, so they obviously limited on their resources. 

There was just not enough evidence to suggest that the search should be over, like more needed to be done, you know, particularly when there was I think 39 men still unaccounted for. And a large part of this was that the life rafts automatically get deployed from these boats when the boats sink, so there was still four life rafts that were unaccounted for. So, until we thought they had been found and they had been found empty, or until a really decent search had been done to do that, it still should be presumed that there’s people out there on the boat. And the Australian government offered assistance, the Japanese coast guard said they didn’t need it. And it just seemed like there was not a huge amount of search that was done, I just don’t know why there wasn’t a greater response from Australia or New Zealand or Philippines or Taiwan or China where the survivors could have potentially been. 

Really upset at the response from the authorities, Harry and some of the families took matters into their own hands.

Harry Morrison: So I started a Facebook group about what to do, and then it just really rapidly grew. And then we started getting a lot of press coverage and we started getting a lot of awareness, and then we started a go fund me, we raised funds. And then we got a crew out there doing different sorts of searches and we had experts, it was amazing the amount of people that volunteered to come and assist, you know, and these were Marine experts, they were consultants. This wasn’t just like our own knowledge, by this point, by the time we raised money, we knew that there was a higher survivability rate. 

For a whole month after official efforts had effectively been given up, Harry spearheaded a vast private search operation.

Because, for them, survivability still looked positive – a raft and lifeboat were still to be found. There was a US naval base nearby.

But after weeks of searching, of chartering planes, of examining satellite imagery – Harry and the group had to make a really difficult decision. 

Harry Morrison: We weren’t just aimlessly searching, we knew if they did get onto a life raft that the life rafts have water stores, they had fishing equipment, they have, you know, all these kinds of things. So they do have the ability to keep people alive for an extended period of time. But then it just got to the point where the search area was too large and with a singular, small, I guess charity organisation, that had just been founded for this search, we just couldn’t do it anymore. 

Basia Cummings: And that moment to stop must have been incredibly difficult.

Harry Morrison: Yeah, it was, it was really difficult, particularly when we had so much evidence and so much kind of external support to suggest that there was still a highest survivability rate for someone out there. And it was a really difficult call to say that’s it, that’s enough, we can’t do it anymore.

At the end of a herculean private effort to recover the bodies, 40 men were still missing, presumed dead, at sea. And what little we really know is this: the ship’s last known speed was 8.3N – around 15 kilometres per hour – and its last known coordinates appeared to be 38.23167 S / 178.66757 E – if you put that in to google maps, you’ll see it’s almost right slap bang in the middle of the pacific, far, far way from where it should have been. 

But the story doesn’t stop there. Of course it doesn’t. 

After the Gulf Livestock 1 sank, attention started to focus on the ship itself – and its numerous problems. 

According to information passed to us by members of the private search & rescue effort, several reports over the past three years showed that the ship had defects.

A report from Indonesian authorities on a website called Equasis, which collates ship safety information, logged issues with the ship’s propulsion and auxiliary machinery. The issues included “deficiencies” with the propulsion main engine. It tallies with what Will texted Harry at the beginning of the trip.

Another 2019 report by the Australian government said that one of the ship’s departures was delayed for a week because of – quote “stability and navigation issues” identified by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. 

Other reports allegedly suggested the ship had had issues with its navigation system in 2019, and that it didn’t have up-to-date charts. 

And then in its previous lives, under the name the Rahmeh anchored off the Turkish coast in 2018, a report on the website FleetMon suggested that local residents had been concerned about the ship being anchored there because livestock on one of its previous voyages had been infected with anthrax. 

Now, we don’t know if any or all of these problems had been fixed before the trip from New Zealand to China, but Harry alleges that when the ship left Queensland to begin its journey, when Will was on it, it already had problems with its engine. 

Harry Morrison: They had one engine that was not performing at a hundred percent, if not performing at all. That’s a huge issue because, a, the boat’s going slower and b, it’s not going to hit, sort of have the force to cut through large swell if it comes. 

For Ian, none of this was surprising.

Ian Urbina: The fact that it happened doesn’t surprise me based on my sense of norms. The fact that that’s a norm surprises me, and it is a norm whereby even when port inspectors find irregularities, the way that this industry has been set up is really very heavily leaning toward the ship owners and the ship operators and not leaning towards the public good, the public safety or the workers. So for example, there’s mandatory insurance that, in most instances, has to be kept to protect the cargo. Only recently was mild versions of mandatory insurance required to be kept for a sliver of a scenario in which Seafarers got trapped or stuck. So for the longest time, the cargo was better protected than the crew.

There is one kernel of hope. 

Since 2002, the year that the ship was built, every boat over a certain size must have something called a voyage data recorder – a shipping version of a black box that usually records between 12 to 48 hours of data, things like the ships’ position, its speed, its direction, radar data, alarm data, – but also, crucially, all conversations taking place on the navigation bridge, the equivalent of the cockpit, via a series of microphones.

By 14 September, 11 days after the boat sank, there were really loud calls for a retrieval operation to rescue the VDR. New Zealand ministers came on board. 

But when we asked the New Zealand government whether they had launched an effort to find the recorder, they said: nope. It’s Japan’s responsibility, not ours.

And so, to this day, it hasn’t been found. 

And so the question is: where should accountability really lie?

Harry Morrison: So I think a lot of the responsibility comes to the ship owners of whom have taken absolutely no responsibility. They didn’t assist financially with the search whatsoever. None of us, that were trying to conduct the private search, could even get in contact with them. They had different companies, different company names, like it was a nightmare to try and even find out who to contact. It’s really shocking, yeah. 

Now, of course, we’ve put all our questions and allegations to the ship’s owners – Gulf Navigation Holdings. And in a brief email, they told us that an official investigation is being carried out and that they continue to assist the relevant authorities

But, it’s impossible not to make a comparison to the airline industry – an industry built modelling itself on the naval rules and customs. 

If it was a plane that had gone down with 43 crew, the wreckage would be searched for, the black box retrieved and we would’ve had answers. It’s hard not to think that what happened to Gulf Livestock one had all the mystery and suspicion of the story of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 – that passenger jet that just… disappeared in 2014, inspiring a huge news interest, and a giant, collaborative search for the wreckage – it’s just that somehow Gulf Livestock 1 had none of the global news coverage, and none of the interest. And I have to confess that at the time it passed me by too. 

And this is when Harry got to, what he thinks, might be at the heart of the problem. A problem that, well, implicates really all of us. 

Harry Morrison: And the only differences with it is obviously, I think it comes down to a racial discrimination against Filipinos and the fact that there was only four, two Australians and two new Zealanders on the boat. It’s a discrimination from the world over that happens exactly in the shipping industry. 

No one cares about these individuals that spend nine months at sea. They’re the sole breadwinner for 13 people, and then they all get lost at sea. No one seems to care about them. 

Ian, in his reporting of distance fishing vessels and the outlaw ocean, says that the treatment of workers at sea is just a brutal reflection of who and what we value, and why.

Ian Urbina: I don’t think it’s distinct to the industry. I do think it is like a dark truism the world over that lives are valued differently. And young developing world migrant workers are not held to the same value that a Maersk, Swedish Danish shipping captain on a multi-billion dollar insured vessel is. A villager from Kalibo, Philippines, you know, who’s 21 and never been offshore, never traveled and now he’s on the sinking vessel, doesn’t speak English, maybe doesn’t know who they would contact if they wanted to try to get help and bring pressure on the ship owners. Even if they did, they wouldn’t have the money to try to pay for the cost of getting a lawyer or, you know, all these barriers mean the consequences that these lives are valued very differently.

Whether it’s the ships’ numerous identities, or this thread of safety deficiencies, or the decision to sail through a typhoon, or the meagre, disjointed search operation after, every single step of this story is an illustration of a booming industry going, it seems, rogue. 

And Ian is clear on what needs to be done. 

Ian Urbina: All ships should be required to keep their transponders on at all times. No matter what, you can’t go dark, you can’t disappear, no matter who you are. Because the minute you can disappear it becomes easy to do whatever you want. I personally think that information should also be public. So academics, lawyers, regulators in developed, undeveloped, developing nations, journalists, should be able to figure out what’s going on in that space.There should be stricter requirements when it comes to almost again, like they are in aeronautics industry,(39:57) where are you going? When are you going to get there? What do you have on board? What’s your crew manifest? Do folks have contracts? And people other than the company and their registries should be able to see them. All of these things, more transparency on the whole supply chain of everything that moves across that space, would suddenly really cut out a huge portion of the dark behavior

And nothing, for me, was more damning than what Harry told me at the end of our conversation. 

Basia Cummings: And have you ever had any contact from the ship’s owners or any sort of recognition of what’s happened?

Harry Morrison: No, nothing. And they have been emailed, so many times, so, so many times, but nothing.

Basia Cummings: And neither has the family? 

Harry Morrison: No, not to my knowledge, no, I don’t think so. So I do know, I did read the other day that the ship did get an insurance payout, the owner of the ship did get an insurance payout.

And I did also know that the family members of – the family of the survivors got a pay out. So there were two Filipino survivors and they got paid out, but I know that their ship owners got paid out for insurance on the ship. And I know that none of the other families who lost family members have been renumerated in any way.

All but one of the numerous companies we contacted replied to us. Or even acknowledged us. And it’s difficult to find any contact information beyond just generic emails. 

Everything is distant and remote. 

Harry told me how difficult it was to get a response from Gulf Livestock 1’s owners. Well, we got one. But it expresses the bare minimum. It said that they had been in touch with the crew’s families and they have been, quote, “offered their contractual benefits.”

Then they go on to say they extend their heartfelt condolences for those who have sadly passed in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families.

But we’ve called them a lot. Or rather, we’ve tried to call them. And each time they didn’t pick up. And it’s fitting, isn’t it. 

Because this is a story that is about a lawlessness that feeds globalisation. Upon which the ease of our everyday lives – our goods and our access to stuff – all rests on. 

And answers, of what really happened to the crew and 6,000 live animals on Gulf Livestock 1, have just drowned under the weight of unaccountability, and deliberate obscurity. 

Another of Will’s friends said that everyone was still coming to terms with what had happened. “It’s not the 18th Century” he said, “ships don’t go missing in storms.”

And in fact, he has a theory. 

He said, “that he’s out there, Will, on a desert island just sitting there, being like – hey this is actually pretty good”.

[Clip: Gulf Livestock 1’s answering machine]

“Thank you for calling the Gulf Navigation Group, our office is closed now. We work from Sunday to Thursday from 9am to 5pm…”

“Sorry, no one is available to answer your call…”

The Gulf Navigation Group and Gulf Livestock 1’s answering machines

Produced by Matt Russell, music by Tom Kinsella