Photos: A Cargo Ship Burns off Sri Lanka, Covering Beaches in Plastic Debris

By Alan Taylor

Two weeks ago, a fire erupted on a cargo ship named the MV X-Press Pearl, which was carrying tons of chemicals and plastic pellets, while it was anchored near Colombo, Sri Lanka. Efforts to douse the fire were unsuccessful, and the damaged ship began spilling its cargo. Tons of plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, spilled from their containers and began washing ashore on nearby beaches. The pellets, used as raw material to manufacture other plastic products, can absorb harmful chemicals and can be mistaken for food by marine animals. The fire on the ship recently died down, but efforts to tow it to deeper water failed, and it appears to be slowly sinking. Local authorities and fishermen are now concerned about the possibility of an oil spill, as the sinking ship was carrying several hundred tons of fuel oil.

Read more

Hints: View this page full screen. Skip to the next and previous photo by typing j/k or ←/→.

  • A severely damaged and smoking cargo ship is seen at sea.

    Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl cargo ship as it sinks while being towed out to deeper water off the Colombo port, in Sri Lanka, on June 2, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • Soldiers wearing protective gear wade through thick piles of plastic debris floating in waves as they crash ashore.

    Sri Lankan Navy members work to remove debris washed ashore from the damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl, on a beach in Colombo on May 27, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Several fireboats work to extinguish a burning ship, with black smoke rising into the sky.

    Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl in the seas off the Colombo port on May 26, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • Fire and black smoke rise from a damaged ship, as seen from above.

    Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl on May 26, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • Several people push a large piece of debris in the surf.

    Smoke rises from the MV X-Press Pearl in the distance as villagers push some of its spilled cargo on a beach in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka, on May 26, 2021.

    Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

    Read more
  • Four soldiers jump to avoid an incoming wave carrying piles of debris.

    Sri Lankan Navy members run to evade a wave carrying debris ashore from the burning MV X-Press Pearl, on the outskirts of Colombo on May 27, 2021.

    Eranga Jayawardena / AP

    Read more
  • A small crab walks across piles of plastic pellets on a beach.

    A crab roams on a beach polluted with plastic pellets that washed ashore on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 31, 2021.

    Eranga Jayawardena / AP

    Read more
  • Navy members work to remove debris from a beach.

    Sri Lankan Navy members work to remove debris on a beach in Colombo on May 27, 2021.

    Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Firefighting boats attempt to put out a ship fire.

    Sri Lankan Navy and Indian Coast Guard ships try to douse the fire as smoke billows from the MV X-Press Pearl, as seen from a beach in Colombo on May 28, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • A view from an aircraft interior, showing a burning cargo ship seen through the front windows.

    Smoke rises from the MV X-Press Pearl while it is being towed into deeper water on June 2, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • An aerial view of the heavily damaged deck of the burning ship.

    Smoke rises from the MV X-Press Pearl on June 2, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • Three people and a dog stand on a polluted beach, looking out to sea.

    People look at the debris washing up on a beach in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka, on May 26, 2021.

    Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

    Read more
  • About a half-dozen Navy members dressed in protective gear walk on a polluted beach.

    Sri Lankan Navy members collect debris that washed ashore at Kapungoda, Sri Lanka, on May 31, 2021.

    Eranga Jayawardena / AP

    Read more
  • Two front-end loaders move debris and sand on a polluted beach.

    Earthmovers work to remove debris washed ashore on a beach in Colombo on May 28, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • A Navy member in protective gear wades through seawater and plastic debris.

    A Sri Lankan Navy member wades through seawater and plastic debris on a beach in Colombo on May 27, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Many Navy members in protective gear work on a beach.

    Sri Lankan Navy members work to remove debris washed ashore from the MV X-Press Pearl on May 27, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Part of the burned ship is still visible as the vessel slowly sinks.

    Part of the MV X-Press Pearl, seen as the vessel sinks after burning for almost two weeks, just outside Colombo's harbor on June 2, 2021

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Two Navy members stand on a beach near waves crashing ashore that are thick with plastic debris.

    Sri Lankan Navy members work to remove debris washed ashore in Colombo on May 27, 2021.

    Ishara S. Kodikara / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • Navy members carry sacks of collected debris on a beach.

    Sri Lankan Navy members pull a sack of debris on a beach in Ja-Ela on May 28, 2021.

    Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

    Read more
  • An aerial view of the heavily damaged ship.

    Smoke rises from the MV X-Press Pearl while it is being towed on June 2, 2021.

    Sri Lanka Air Force via Reuters

    Read more
  • A man walks on a polluted beach past sacks containing debris.

    A man walks past sacks containing debris that washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl on a beach in Colombo on June 3, 2021.

    Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP / Getty

    Read more
  • We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.