It was the stuff of nightmares. In 2013 the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax, Canada, picked up two distress signals from a ghost ship drifting in international waters. Furthermore, with the vessel on course for terra firma, one salvage expert went on the record with a disturbing claim. The ship, he said, was harboring some horrifying stowaways…
Named after a much-admired Russian singer and film star, the MV Lyubov Orlova was a Soviet-commissioned cruise liner and expedition vessel made in Yugoslavia in 1976. It was a rugged and resilient craft that spent much of its life touring the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctic.
However, the vessel’s long and adventurous service came to an abrupt end in 2010. Due to a lawsuit brought against its debt-ridden owners, the Lyubov Orlova was seized by Canadian authorities and impounded in the port of St John’s in Newfoundland. Its Russian crew consequently found themselves stranded for weeks.
The Lyubov Orlova remained docked for some two years until an Iranian scrap dealer called Hussein Humayuni finally acquired it for $275,000. Humayuni then commissioned Hunt Marine – a U.S.-owned tug operator – to tow the ship to the Dominican Republic for stripping and salvage. However, things did not go as planned.
Lashed by ten-foot-high waves and 22 mph winds, the tug lost its line on the ship less than a day after leaving port. And while the crew subsequently attempted to reconnect it, conditions proved to be too turbulent. The Lyubov Orlova was now dangerously adrift and threatening collision with nearby oil rigs.
Fortunately, another vessel, the Atlantic Hawk – a supply ship contracted by Husky Energy – managed to recapture the drifting Lyubov Orlova. However, a few days later – just 20 minutes after it was handed over to the Canadian government, in fact – the Orlova’s tow line snapped once again. This time, though, Transport Canada did not seem to be too concerned.
“The Lyubov Orlova no longer poses a threat to the safety of offshore oil installations, their personnel or the marine environment,” it declared in a statement made in February 2, 2013, basically washing its hands of the situation. “The vessel has drifted into international waters [and] it is very unlikely that the vessel will re-enter waters under Canadian jurisdiction…”
With its position recorded as some 250 nautical miles east of St. John’s on Newfoundland and therefore outside of Canada’s territory, the Lyubov Orlova began drifting on a northeasterly axis. It was now at the mercy of ocean currents and capricious weather systems. And although the ship was installed with tracking technology, where it might finally end up was anyone’s guess.
One possible scenario was that, in time, it might drift on a northern latitude and end up in the far-flung waters of Norway. Alternatively, it could eventually bear south and run aground in West Africa. Of course, though, it might well sink before then – or become trapped in an endlessly revolving Atlantic gyre.
But if nothing else, the Lyubov Orlova was tough. On February 23, the ship’s emergency position-indication radio beacon (EPIRB) was picked up by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax. This showed that it was on course for Ireland. Furthermore, data from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency – along with a second beacon received in March – seemed to confirm that idea.
Consequently placed on alert, the Irish Air Corps and coastguard scrambled their resources in an attempt to locate the ship, which was now believed to be within several hundred miles of the Irish shoreline. However, the ship’s distress signals – which trigger automatically when ship sensors come into contact with water – had fallen eerily silent.
Significantly, the approximate scrap value of the ship was around one million dollars. As a result, the Canadian and Irish authorities weren’t the only parties interested in its whereabouts. Professional salvage hunters mounted their own searches for the Lyubov Orlova, but they too turned up nothing. Once again, the ship appeared to be lost.
The hunt for the Lyubov Orlova went cold. But then, a year later, on January 23, 2014, Britain’s The Sun newspaper published an article claiming that “coastguards and other authorities are worried [that] storms may have driven her thousands of miles toward Britain’s coast.” Was it true? Had the Orlova reappeared?
“There have been huge storms in recent months but it takes a lot to sink a vessel as big as that,” Chris Reynolds, head of the Irish coastguard, told The Sun. “We must stay vigilant.” Furthermore, the report added, “If the ship makes landfall it is likely to be on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland or the far southern tip of England.”
However, the aspect of the story that really captured the imagination of the British public – not to mention the tabloid newspapers – was not the simple fact that the ship might run aground. It was the fact that, according to one Belgian salvage hunter called Pim de Rhoodes, the ship was unlikely to be empty of passengers. “She is floating out there somewhere. There will be a lot of rats,” he told The Sun. “And they eat each other…”
And what could be more horrifying than hordes of diseased rats and their bloodthirsty fleas scurrying onto Britain’s shores? Hordes of diseased cannibal rats, of course. “The ship’s female rats may have had seven litters of 14 babies by now,” claimed The Sun. “Meaning thousands of descendants…”
Interestingly, when asked about the impending seething biohazard threatening to engulf the United Kingdom, a spokesman for the British Prime Minister David Cameron seemed somewhat evasive. Indeed, according to Bloomberg journalist Robert Hutton, the spokesman dodged the question and said, “I sense we’re in a B-movie script development meeting here…”
However, to be fair, the chances of the ship hitting land were actually vanishingly small. “Our professional belief is that it has sunk,” Chris Reynolds told the British Independent newspaper. “We’ve discussed it with the UK and Norway and Iceland and we’re all pretty happy that it has probably sunk.”
Indeed, there was nothing to indicate that the ship had actually reappeared since it dropped off the radar a year earlier. To this day, moreover, it has never been found, so we won’t know how much – or little – of the sensational cannibal rat story is grounded in actual fact.
And, in the interests of journalistic balance, it should be noted that while rats often get a bad press – and starving rats may indeed resort to cannibalism – they are actually highly intelligent and social animals. So if and when the Lyubov Orlova ever hits land, perhaps we should consider welcoming its furry little stowaways as friends and pets?