What Do You Do With a Sunken Cruise Ship?

By Sarah Zhang | March 8, 2012 11:58 am

spacing is important
A schematic of where the Costa Concordia sits on the sea floor.

Nearly two months since the Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy, clean-up crews are still puzzling over what to do with the gigantic wreck.  And gigantic it is—with a gross tonnage of 112,000, the Costa Concordia is twice the size of the Titantic.

The immediate concern was oil, 500,000 toxic gallons of it, that could gush into the Mediterranean. Since February 12, the Dutch film Smit has been vacuuming out fuel using a system of pumps and valves. Their work is especially tricky because the wrecked ship sits on the edge of a 200-foot underwater drop-off, and any disturbances can easily push it over. So to minimize the risk of destabilizing the ship while moving 500,000 gallons of oil out of it, Smit is pumping in seawater as it pumps out oil.

Once the fuel is all extracted, crews salvaging the actual ship will have to contend with the precipitous problem too. The cruise’s parent company recently invited 10 firms to bid on the clean-up operation. Charles Choi at Scientific American talked to some experts about possible solutions.

The two most practical solutions seem to either be cutting up the ship into liftable chunks or refloating it  to be towed away for scrap. Neither is easy, reports Choi. Cutting up the ship would require metal shears that can cut through 3 inches of steel and huge magnets 10 meters in diameter to pick up stray debris from the sea floor. Refloating the ship, which sank because of huge gashes in its hull, would need some major repair work first.

But given the laughable actions of Costa Concordia‘s captain who got the ship into this mess in the first place—wine and a comely lady play a part—we couldn’t help but be intrigued by one of the more dramatic of the options that have been, ahem, floated:

An exotic solution would involve pumping air-filled polystyrene balls into the Costa Concordia to make it float to the surface, an idea tried in the past in Iceland and Kuwait. (A similar concept, using ping-pong balls, was actually first mentioned in a 1949 Donald Duck comic, and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke invoked a similar idea in The Ghost from the Grand Banks, suggesting billions of glass bubbles could raise the Titanic.) [International Salvage Union secretary general Mike Lacey] doesn’t think much of this idea, either. “I haven’t heard of them being used in years and years—they make a hell of a mess, since you can’t control them, and they get all over the sea and every damn place,” he says. “They’re a real problem to clean up, so I don’t think the authorities would take too kindly to their use here.”

[via Scientific American]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • Tom

    Ping pong ball refloating actually worked when the Mythbusters tried them some years ago — albeit on a much smaller scale. Would that work on a ship that isn’t fully submerged, anyway?

    Regardless, I think the massive quantity needed would make that method impractical. I say cut it to pieces.

  • http://druidlabs.wordpress.com Mike Carroll

    Mythbusters tested this in 2004 and came to the conclusion that it can be done, but with the same problems that ISU’s Mike Lacey stated.


  • Andy

    They did the pingpong ball on MythBusters a few seasons back. If I recall correctly, it worked… it just took a god-awful amount. And this was on a small catamaran.

  • Tom Northam

    They offer a reward of 5 (euro) cents per ball returned and they’ll soon have fishing boats clearing them up.

    Someone put me in charge.

  • MadSciKat =^..^=

    [cue music]

    “Fill ‘er up with ping pong ba-alls,
    Fill ‘er up with ping pong ba-alls,
    Fill ‘er up with ping pong ba-alls,
    Ear-lye in the mornin’…”

  • Francis Kisner

    Suppose that the floatation material, ping-pong balls, bits of closed cell styrofoam, or what ever was chosen, were first coated with a slow acting adhesive. As the material was pumped in, it would stick to the ship and to other pieces of flotation. By the time the ship is floating again, the material should be largely self-contained. Also, as soon as the gashes are exposed, a water-porous sealing material could be epoxied across the opening. I’m thinking in terms of a cloth mesh. This should allow water to be forced out (displaced) by the addition of more flotation but would prevent the small pieces from slipping out and contaminating the area.

    I admit that I am not an engineer. The idea of cutting the ship apart where it sits strikes me as a terrible idea. In fact, if the ship could be brought back to dry-dock, why could it not be repaired for millions less than it would take to replace it?

  • Slip

    Stabalize ship and upright it. Leave in place and connect to land w/ a bridge., and use it for a hotel on above water floors. Under water floors could be used for fish culture and zoo for skindivers.

  • Nick B

    Sea floor, not ocean floor, unless the Med has grown significantly sincelast I looked

  • jim

    Weld up the gash, pump out the water and let her float. Once the water tight sections have been sealed it will be easy to pump out each section. This is not rocket science and it has been done for 100’s of years.

  • Brian Too

    Why not refloat the ship with the former Captain’s inflated ego?

    Reduce, re-use and recycle!

  • Trevor

    Ok fill it with conola oil n itll float back up.

  • joseph M


  • Tim

    I think they should use yellow rubber duckies…..

  • Majestic One

    A Navy supply ship was once in the same position in the south pacific and navy attached huge water bags on the exposed side and filled them with water for the weight to aid turning it over when air bags was inflated on the submerge side. Navy then pumped water out and towed it.

  • John Lerch

    The ping pong balls wouldn’t necessarily have to re-float the ship–it wouldn’t merely have to keep it afloat once the ship was righted toward the drop off. (Re-float with an appropriate set of cables.)

  • Scott DeMars

    Pretty simple fix.
    Make the ping pong balls from the same biodegradable stuff they make bioplastic cutlery from. Corn and potato starch

  • http://discovermagazine.com Iain

    Leave it there to mark the unmarked rock that super captain hit.

  • Troy

    Weld metal over every opening that’s submerged then pump water out. Once it’s upright in dry dock, remove metal. Or find some material to wrap ship in like super strong cling wrap then pump out water. Sure it would take a lot but probably cheaper than scrapping lt

  • Jonnoxx

    This blog has a very well-reasoned implementation of the use of buoyant objects to salvage the Concordia. Check the responses in the comments as well.


  • Zac

    light it on fire!!!!!

  • KPAC04


  • Corporate Serf

    Fill the hull with a quick curing foam that is lighter than sea water.

  • Hutshop

    The wrecked cruise liner Costa Concordia could be refloated with the help of huge inflatable buoys once the fuel is pumped out and the leaks plugged. in my Opinion the costs are unrelevant. It is even more important to save the environment as good as possible.


  • Geronimo

    I agree with Majestic One: A Navy supply ship was once in the same position in the south pacific and the navy attached huge water bags on the exposed side and filled them with water for the weight to aid turning it over when air bags was inflated on the submerge side. Navy then pumped water out and towed it. K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple Stupid)

  • John B

    What about a large nozzle like a sausage machine that extrudes ” sausages ” of air into a plastic tube
    that fits over an air hose. Sealed with a weld periodically to address breakages etc.

    Divers take hose to rooms in turn – then .. Turn on the bubble machine …
    Fill room with hundreds of plastic bags of air.
    Need to allow for expansion as ship rises .

    Air Products make these already for packaging – just on a much grander scale.

  • Rob

    i see a couple of you have alreayd touche don this. they could get things called “Rhino bags” and tailor them for air tight applications. simply adding a couple of these to a bunch of rooms should dot he same as the balls stated in the article; but without the mess.

    i just hate that these solutions are out there and nobody cares to use them


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