Bondi View

Waves of face masks force closure of Sydney beaches

Several of Sydney’s beaches were closed after they were inundated with medical masks and other items washed in from containers lost at sea from cargo vessel APL England. Photo: Bahnfrend


Several of Sydney’s most popular beaches were closed after they were inundated with an unexpected tide.

Coronavirus restrictions imposed at the end of March 2020 led to multiple closures and re-openings of Sydney’s southern beaches, attributable to people violating rules on social distancing. However, several beaches were closed again on Wed 27 May due to an incident in the Pacific Ocean, 70km south of Sydney.

Rough seas, which battered Sydney’s coastline with high waves in the wake of an East Coast Low weather condition bringing typically intense rain, also dislodged transport boxes on a container ship from China.

According to Transport for NSW, “The Cargo ship APL England lost 40 containers, 73 kilometres south east of Sydney on Sunday [24 May]. The vessel had been travelling from China and was en-route to Melbourne… Twenty-one of the containers lost at sea are empty, according to the ship’s records.”

On 29 May, following inspections of the vessel, Transport for NSW updated the situation: “From an audit carried out in the Port of Brisbane, the number of lost containers has been revised to 50 up from the original 40 reported missing, so we have an even bigger job ahead of us. Twenty-four of these containers were being transported empty and 26 contain a variety of goods.”

After pounding waves broke open the lost metal boxes, a range of items were flushed out into the ocean, with several tons of them redistributed along Australia’s coastline via westerly currents. A significant proportion – including medical masks and plastic food boxes marked with Coles supermarket logos – rolled in on 27 May, landing on beaches in Sydney’s south.

Ironically, the deluge of medical masks forced the closure of three Randwick Council-administered beaches, whereas it was a lack of mask wearing by large crowds that provoked the previous closures when coronavirus was at a peak.

After sealing off the beaches, council rangers, joined by local residents and volunteers from environmental group Australian Seabird Rescue, formed a task force to gather the flotsam and jetsam strewn across the sand. Malabar Beach reportedly bore the brunt of the waterborne junk, consisting mainly of surgical face masks, air-conditioning ducts and plastic takeaway containers.

A Randwick Council spokesperson confirmed on 28 May, “Clean-up of debris was required at Coogee Beach, Maroubra Beach and Malabar Beach…”

Coogee Beach re-opened the following day, but Maroubra Beach remained closed due to dangerous surf conditions, with swimmers and surfers advised not to enter the water due to the risk of being hit by larger, submerged items rolling in with the heavy tide.

Transport for NSW revealed “The ship’s cargo manifest indicates there are no dangerous or hazardous goods among the container contents, which include bar stools, food dehydrators, medical face masks, shields and goggles, furniture, range hoods, gazebos and cat furniture.”

Bondi breached
To the north of Malabar, several of the Waverley Council-administered beaches were also affected by debris from the 50 lost cargo containers, including the world-famous Bondi Beach, although experiencing a lesser volume.

Waverley’s beaches remained open to swimmers and surfers following guidance from NSW Maritime, whilst NSW Police officers were deployed to pick up any items from the shipping containers that washed in on the tide.

A Waverley Council spokesperson told City Hub, “items, including what appeared to be air-conditioning unit parts, began washing up at Bondi on Tuesday afternoon [26 May]. Lifeguards notified Port Authority [which] attended Bondi .. to collect the items and investigate any potential links to the cargo ship that lost its load earlier in the week 70kms off the Sydney coast… Further items, such as face masks, washed up at Bondi, Bronte and Tamarama. Port Authority were again notified..”

Five of the 12-metre-long steel containers were dumped battered, buckled and still locked together at Birdie Beach on the Budgewoi peninsula, on the NSW Central Coast, three days after they were lost at sea. They’d been carried by the prevailing currents a distance of around 190km north from where they were washed overboard.

An additional five containers washed ashore south of Bateau Bay

During initial aerial surveys NSW Maritime also spotted six more containers along the coast, five locked together in the ocean near Terrigal, plus a solo container floating off Wollongong. The Terrigal batch was approximately 165km north of where they washed overboard; the latter was 20km south. Retrieval of all the containers has involved maritime recovery specialists utilising tug boats.

NSW Maritime’s Executive Director, Alex Barrell, said retrieval crews worked between Wollongong and Port Stephens, Newcastle, to remove containers and their contents from beaches and bays.

Meanwhile, the Singapore-flagged cargo ship responsible, APL England, was impounded by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) after it docked in Brisbane. An investigation was launched to determine whether the containers were properly stacked and secured before they were washed overboard, and if any environmental regulations were breached as the containers’ contents were scattered in the ocean.

AMSA inspectors boarded the ship at the Port of Brisbane on Tues 26 May and found the 277 metre long vessel, with a gross weight of 65,792 tonnes, was carrying cargo that wasn’t secured properly, with rusted fittings in use to anchor the steel containers on the deck. The Captain faces charges for allegedly breaching safety standards.

Environmentalists expressed concern about the risk to marine animals that may eat some of the waterborne waste from the ruptured containers, like the blue medical masks that would resemble jellyfish to any sea turtles that consume them.

Australian Seabird Rescue branch coordinator Cathy Gilmore told ABC News, “It’s not going to biodegrade, it’s going to stay there for such a long time. These animals out in the ocean are going to choose to eat a lot of it as food. They don’t realise that what the ocean is providing isn’t good for them.”