The cargo ship, longer than a soccer field, lost an engine as it traversed choppy seas off the coast of Japan. Then a wave flooded its deck in the dark of night, according to a survivor, forcing the vessel to list at a precarious angle.
Inside were dozens of crew members, and nearly 6,000 cows, on their way from New Zealand to China.
“When it was capsizing, an onboard announcement instructed us to wear a life jacket,” one of the crew members, Sareno Edvardo, of the Philippines, later told the Japanese coast guard. “So I wore a life jacket and jumped into the sea.”
After the ship sent a distress signal in the early hours of Wednesday, Japan scrambled three patrol planes and four coast guard boats. But it would be nearly 24 hours before rescuers found Edvardo, 45, bobbing in the East China Sea.
He was the only one, and he said he had watched the ship sink.
Rescue efforts continued Thursday as Typhoon Maysak lashed parts of South Korea, north of where Edvardo was found, with heavy rain and gusts of up to 90 mph, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes without power.
Maysak later weakened to a tropical storm as it moved toward North Korea. But even if that made rescuers’ jobs easier, it seemed increasingly unlikely that there would be more survivors.
The episode raises fresh questions about transporting livestock by sea, a practice that has been criticized for its treatment of animals.
Millions of cattle and sheep are shipped every year, generating hefty profits for meat producers in countries like Australia and New Zealand. But animal rights advocates say that such journeys are often too long, regulations are not up to scratch and the rules are easily flouted.
Activists say that the vessels are usually converted cargo ships that do not meet animal welfare standards, and that the livestock face heat stress, overcrowding and the spread of disease during the journeys.
“This is a high-risk trade that puts the lives of animals at risk which is why the export of live animals must be banned,” Marianne Macdonald, the campaigns manager for SAFE, a New Zealand-based animal welfare group, said in a statement Thursday.
She added that the cows on the vessel were likely pregnant and should not have been at sea in the first place.
The ship, Gulf Livestock 1, was believed to have 43 crew members, including 39 from the Philippines, the Japanese coast guard said. The foreign ministries of New Zealand and Australia each said that two of their countries’ citizens were among the crew.
The Philippines is one of the world’s leading suppliers of merchant seafarers, whose remittances help to fuel the country’s economy. Last year, there were nearly 500,000 Filipino seafarers, on vessels ranging from oil tankers to cruise ships.
The livestock carrier left Napier, New Zealand, on Aug. 14 with a cargo of 5,867 cattle and had been expected to arrive in the Chinese port city of Tangshan about 17 days later, New Zealand’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Gulf Livestock 1, a 456-foot ship, is registered in Panama and was built as a livestock carrier in 2002, according to VesselFinder.com, a tracking website. A photo on the site shows cattle berths stacked high on its deck, as rooms might be on a luxury cruise liner. The ship’s registered owner is Rahmeh Compania Naviera SA, a company based in Amman, Jordan, Reuters reported.
The Japanese coast guard said that the ship sent its distress signal at 1:44 a.m. Wednesday, from a spot in the East China Sea that is about 100 nautical miles west of the southern Japanese island of Amami Oshima.
Edvardo was hospitalized on the island Thursday morning and was able to walk, said Yuichiro Higashi, a spokesman for the coast guard. He said that vessels from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force were assisting in the rescue effort.
Edvardo told the coast guard that from the time the ship capsized until he was fished out of the water, he had not seen any other crew members, Higashi said.
The livestock carrier was not the first to encounter trouble at sea recently.
In November, a cargo ship overturned in the Black Sea near Romania while on its way to Saudi Arabia. The ship’s 21 crew members were rescued, but most of the nearly 15,000 sheep trapped on board were not.
The 180 sheep that survived were rescued by animal welfare groups, spared from slaughter and sent to live in the Romanian countryside.