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Marine biologists have discovered something on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, off California, that they've never seen before. It's a shipping container. It's common for cargo ships to lose these containers overboard. Companies write them off and collect insurance. But scientists have never actually laid eyes on one on the ocean floor.

Now, as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, they've decided to study how this container may affect sea life.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It was a real needle-in-a-haystack kind of luck. Biologists on a research ship in 2004 were scanning the seafloor in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary with a robotic submarine. It was my mile after mile of mud until suddenly, the navigator's screen filled with the image of a bright-yellow shipping container.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The biologist was misidentified as Peter DeVogelaere. His first name is Andrew.]

Peter DeVogelaere is a biologist with the sanctuary.

Dr. ANDREW DEVOGELAERE (Biologist, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary): This is a 40-foot-long container, and it landed upside down with one corner stuck into the soft sand-muddy bottom.

JOYCE: The scientists marked its location. Eventually, they tracked the container to the merchant vessel Med Taipei, which had lost 15 containers in a storm off Monterey Bay a few months earlier. The yellow container was one of those.

Now, the law says you can't dump stuff in a marine sanctuary. The sanctuary negotiated, and the shipping company agreed to pay for a study of how the container might affect life at the sea bottom.

You might think, what could a single container really do to sea life? Well, DeVogelaere points out that it's not just one container.

Dr. DEVOGELAERE: As a matter of course of business, on average, about 10,000 of these containers fall off of ships every year.

JOYCE: That's a rough estimate but clearly, it's thousands a year. And they're clustered along shipping lanes that crisscross the oceans.

Dr. DEVOGELAERE: What nobody has really thought of before was the trash that we're leaving across the Pacific and other oceans every time we lose these containers. And to drop hard substratum along certain routes could create stepping stones or highways of trash, you know, as the years accumulate and these things really don't disintegrate.

JOYCE: DeVogelaere recently returned to the site with a robotic submersible, and a team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Submerged now for seven years, the container still looks new. And it's attracted a lot of sea life - Neptunea, for example, a large sea snail with a big shell.

Dr. DEVOGELAERE: What we think might be happening is, they're attracted to this place to lay their eggs on it, but then there's octopus and large crabs underneath that feed on them. So you have their eggs, but then you have a whole bunch of broken shells as well.

JOYCE: These containers are creating a new kind of habitat, with its own suite of creatures, in the middle of the seabed. Is that bad? Well, DeVogelaere says no one can say - the seabed is still a big mystery. But what happens if we pave parts of the seabed with these containers?

Dr. DEVOGELAERE: Who knows? They could even provide stepping stones for an invasive species that go from one coastal harbor to another.

JOYCE: And containers carry just about everything - from toxic chemicals to ribbon. The Monterey Bay container appears to be safe enough, though. According to the shipping company, it's full of radial tires.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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