Hakai Magazine


Ballast Show Notes

Ballast—it’s heavy stuff most of us probably never ponder. And yet, ballast has had a profound effect on our modern world. Roads we travel on, plants we eat, and pests we fight, all have a connection to ballast; even today, it shapes our world. Ballast: it’s not what you think.

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Episode 1: The Hidden History of Ballast

The surprising connections between British Columbia jade, the Bristol Blitz, and a Swedish sunken ship.

Yes, Virginia, ballast from Britain built Manhattan. Or some of it. This was one of the enticing tidbits that got us very interested in ballast around here and we asked Elin Kelsey to delve in. A podcast on ballast? Sure, why not!

In this episode, Elin chats with some ballast experts—yes, they exist—tries some science in her kitchen sink, asks around to see if there’s any truth to the rumor that British Columbia jade was smuggled out of the country as ballast by Canadian Pacific Railway workers, and generally just gets us jazzed about the fascinating science and history behind ballast—the weight we add to boats that helps them float.


Mats Burström’s book, Ballast: Laden With History was the inspiration for this podcast. We published an excerpt in Hakai Magazine.

There’s an entire museum in Stockholm, Sweden, devoted to the Vasa, the extraordinary warship that sank in 1628 on her maiden voyage after sailing only 1,300 meters.

Here’s more on British Columbia’s nephrite jade—how it’s formed, where it’s found, how it’s mined, the current update on the marketplace, and more.

Take a tour of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, one of two remaining fully functional Liberty ships built and launched during the Second World War.


Elin Kelsey This is the most incredible thing I have heard in a long time.

That is the sound of a zebra finch, a small Australian bird, singing to its chick. But the thing is that chick hasn’t even hatched yet. The parent is singing to a chick that is still inside the egg. Amazing, right? But the really astonishing thing is that zebra finch parents only sing this particular song when it’s super hot outside. And when they do, the sound of the song causes the unhatched chick to develop differently. Chicks who hear this song are smaller in size when they hatch than chicks who didn’t hear it.

My name is Elin Kelsey and I have a doctorate in environmental policy and communications. But really, I study hope and the environment. I am constantly searching for stories of the incredible resilience of other species and that’s what led me to try to convince Hakai Magazine to let me do this podcast.

But the ironic thing is, when they agreed to let me have a go at it, they gave me a topic that is as far away from egg-talking birds as you can imagine: ballast.


Elin Kelsey First of all, I am not a nautical engineer and I don’t even like ships that much. But whenever I’ve been presented with a topic that sounds so dull, I immediately find someone who is passionate about it and luckily that was easy to do.

Filipe Castro Oh, everything is boring if you look at it from a shallow viewpoint. Everything.

Elin Kelsey That’s Filipe Castro. He’s a professor of maritime archaeology at Texas A&M University.

Filipe Castro Modern art is boring if you don’t understand, if you don’t want to think about it. Ballast is amazing. I mean the very idea that it lowers your center of gravity. I mean the metaphors are, I think, in themselves, amazing. Without ballast there wouldn’t be any navigation.

Elin Kelsey I may not like ships that much, but I do love big ideas. And the idea that ballast is crucial to ships and that ships are crucial to our daily lives—after all 90 percent of world trade is carried by ships—it’s pretty significant.

The thing about ballast, I quickly discover, is that it affects us in ways I never expected. Like how it changed the world on a scale that rivals the impact of the ice ages. And how ballast shapes our cities and our cultures. And I even get to talk about earthworms and how they would never have existed in Canada and the United States without ballast. It’s about the remarkable use of ballast by other species. But also about the real and metaphoric things that we hide away in the dark places of our own psyches—what keeps us hopeful and afloat, and what makes us sink.

But before we go any further, I need to tell you what ballast is.

It’s sand. It’s water. It’s bricks. It’s rocks the size of small watermelons. It’s beer. Honestly, it’s stuff. Ballast is anything with weight that can be added to a vessel to improve its stability.

Pretty broad, right? That’s because what ballast is made of is much less important than what it does.

In fact, I bet you probably see ballast in action every single day, in your own kitchen sink.

Elin Kelsey So the whole thing about ballast, there’s part of it that just doesn’t strike me as logical. It’s this concept that you have to add more weight in order to help something float and I just can’t quite get my head around that, so I decided I would invite my friend Dustin over to use my kitchen sink. So, Dustin, why does adding more weight help something float?

Dustin So when you have a cup like this one, a little mug or something, you throw it in the sink, there’s nothing in it. And, immediately, it sinks. It tips over, there’s nothing in it, it sinks. Now there’s a bunch of bubbles and stuff coming out of it. But, if I fill that cup up even just a little bit … it still sinks. This is not a seaworthy cup.

Elin Kelsey I’m afraid I made that in ceramics class. Um, here, I’ll get you a real mug made by an actual person. Hang on.

Dustin This is actually a good example because this mug is off balance to begin with, so you have a heavy handle on one side, and, immediately it pulls that way and then sinks. So it would be the same if you had a ship though, really. If you had a ship that was a lot heavier on one side even putting a little bit of ballast in there wouldn’t be enough because it’s just too heavy.

Elin Kelsey Alright, so clearly, getting a cup to float in a sink isn’t as easy as we thought, but that doesn’t mean that Dustin’s little experiment was a failure. After all, I got my dishes washed and he inadvertently demonstrated something else that Filipe told me.

Filipe Castro Just floating is not enough for a boat. It needs to be stable to have a righting moment when it’s shaken by the water. And so to have a weight on the bottom gives it stability. So ballast is a synonym of stability; of something that keeps the boat straight and afloat when seas are rough.

Elin Kelsey This all sounds quite logical, but just picture how complicated it is to figure out the right ballast when the ship is being tossed around by waves or stormy weather. Or when it’s traveling for many months and the amount of food and water stored on board is being consumed by the crew so that the weight of the cargo and the stability of the ship is constantly changing.

Filipe Castro We made an experiment a few years ago with engineers. At a certain point we decided to make a model and then put it in the water. It was stable. We put the right amount of ballast and then we sailed it in the computer to India. And every time people drank a barrel of water, the impact stability of the vessel changed. So, everything had to be reevaluated to keep the vessel afloat after three months of trip when you have a lot of tons of water that are gone. And that gives you an idea of the importance of balance, of ballast, and of the balance of a ship. It is paramount.

Elin Kelsey And if there’s one story that nautical experts use to explain this concept, it’s the story of the Vasa.

Imagine you are standing in a wildly excited crowd in Stockholm harbor. It’s a beautiful summer Sunday, and oh yeah, it’s 400 years ago. You squint into the sun, the blue sky all but obliterated by the biggest, most expensive, heavily armed ship ever built by the Swedish navy—or any other navy—at that time. This thing is decked out—64 guns, 10 sails, and such rich ornamentation you can almost taste the pride of the king for whom the ship is named.

The Vasa is guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of Sweden’s enemies.

You watch as officers order sailors to move from one side of the Vasa’s great deck to the other. They shift to balance the vessel and to test her stability. Amongst them are children and family members who have been invited on board to celebrate the ship’s maiden voyage.

At last, the Vasa casts off. She is towed by cables along the waterfront, to a place where she can pick up the current. Finally, freed from the land, four of the 10 sails are set and a salute is fired.

And then catastrophe strikes. A gust of wind catches the ship. She immediately heels hard to port. She rights herself slightly and then tips over.

Mats Burström, a Swedish archaeologist, describes the scene: “Water poured in through the open gun ports and rapidly filled the ship. In a matter of moments the list was so great that the ballast began to shift.

“The ballast stones rolled to the port side, making the ship list even further. Disaster was now inevitable; the ship was beyond saving. On board were over 150 crew and guests, of whom 30 or so died.”

Getting a boat to sit properly in the water is vital to the survival of the crew, the cargo, and the stability of the ship itself. But what the history of ballast is teaching me is that what people chose to use for ballast, and how carefully they loaded their ships, was determined as much by politics, economics, and happenstance, as it was by physics.

This was certainly the case here in British Columbia, where over this past decade, there’s been a gold rush of sorts. Well, make that a jade rush.

According to foreign policy sources, China’s middle class is expected to nearly double by the mid-2020s. As the Chinese middle class grows, so too does the appetite for jade.

You might be surprised to hear that 90 percent of the world’s nephrite jade lies in British Columbia’s Cassiar Mountains. It brings the equivalent of a whopping 20 to 30-million US dollars into the BC economy every year.

But what’s this got to do with ballast? Well, the connection between BC jade and China started way back in the 1800s when a huge influx of Chinese laborers arrived in Canada to build the BC section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the CPR jobs ended, many of those people stayed to pan for gold along the Fraser River.

Tzu-I Chung So the story went that they actually were panning gold in the Fraser River and they saw some jade washed down the stream. And there were a lot of discrimination and racism during the time. So we don’t know how, but they somehow knew that this was jade and they managed to hide it from the rest of the people and then shipped successfully back to China.

Elin Kelsey That’s Tzu-I Chung, a cultural and social historian with the Royal BC Museum. I asked her to meet me in a jade store in the heart of Victoria’s tourist district because rumor has it that jade might have secretly made its way to China—hidden in plain sight—as ballast. After all, jade just looks like weathered brown, gray, or white rocks. The green nephrite is concealed inside.

Were the Chinese laborers trying to pull one over the ruling class? Were they seeking some sense of power, of floating above the institutionalized racism they suffered? It’s unlikely that written records would exist to prove whether or not an illicit trade in ballast occurred.

But that’s no obstacle for an ace oral historian like Tzu-I.

Elin Kelsey How can we figure out this ballast story? If I were to say to you, I’ll give you a million dollars if you could help me sort out whether jade went as ballast in ships unbeknownst to the people who were sending it?

Tzu-I Chung Okay, if you find the money, what I will do is I will go …

Elin Kelsey Tzu-I tells me how she would use oral histories, assembling a crew of Cantonese and Siyi speakers to talk with elders and their descendents. She’d mine their memories to chase down the real story of the alleged secret shipments of ballast that aren’t part of a written official history.

Stories about ballast are rich with these kinds of unsolved mysteries, but what I am really starting to love about ballast is that even when you are literally walking on the rocks and bricks and heavy objects that have been hidden away and carried around and dropped off by ships as ballast for hundreds and hundreds of years, you don’t necessarily see it. It’s invisible to us. Invisible, that is, until someone shows you an example that is simply too ginormous to ignore.

And that’s what led me to Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and to a giant steel cargo ship called the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a Liberty ship.

[Liberty Ship Newsreel]
America, traditionally a maritime nation, mobilizes its mechanical and its industrial genius to build the largest fleet of cargo ships ever to sail the seven seas.

The name, Liberty ship, has that Captain America vibe, but the great behemoth rising several stories above me is really nothing flashy. In fact, 75 years ago, during the ship’s heyday, then President Franklin Roosevelt called it “a dreadful-looking object” and Time magazine referred to it as the “ugly duckling.”

Yet, it has its place in history.

By the end of the Second World War, over 2,700 liberty ships had been built and those ships constantly delivered much-needed supplies in times of the greatest need.

It’s November, 1940. Bristol, England, is being pummeled by German bombs.

After one particularly horrific attack, Thomas Underwood, the mayor said, “The City of Churches had in one night become the city of ruins.”

The Bristol Blitz, as it came to be known, would last six horrible months. In its wake, this major industrial port, which was crucial to the war effort, along with 84,000 houses, were obliterated.

During this time the Liberty ships provided a lifeline, bringing everything from toilet paper to ammunition. Once they unloaded, each ship needed to take on at least 1,500 tonnes of ballast—that’s the weight of more than 85 fully loaded city buses—to make the return trip to the United States.

The problem was that Bristol didn’t have anything to export, so they used the one thing they had a lot of—rubble.

They filled the holds of the Liberty ships with bits and pieces of bombed out buildings and then they turned for home, where they dumped it on the shores of New York.

So today, when you drive on the east side of Manhattan, you are driving on the ruins of Bristol.

The scale of how ballast changed the world is almost impossible to comprehend. The fact that Liberty ships moved enough ballast over just a few years to extend the footprint of a city as big as New York—and that’s just one tiny example—gives you a hint at the enormous quantities of ballast materials that have crisscrossed the oceans.

As Filipe, who we heard from earlier, puts it …

Filipe Castro If you imagine how many vessels have been sailing since at least Roman times, it makes a lot of sense to talk about megatons of ballast that have been shifted around. Absolutely.

Elin Kelsey The year 1680 to 1690, 204 ships, 130,849 tonnes. The year 1690 to the 1700s, 235 ships, 143,295 tonnes. The year 1700 to 1710, 280 ships, 186,364 tonnes …

But, that’s for another episode.

We’d like to thank Mats Burström of Stockholm University, Filipe Castro at Texas A&M University, Kyle Day of the National Liberty Ship Memorial, Joost Schokkenbroek of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and Tzu-I Chung of the Royal BC Museum.

This episode of Ballast was produced by Dustin Patar, Katrina Pyne, and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.

Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.

We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tune in to the next episode of the ballast podcast where we look at how ballast has transformed the way we eat.

Episode 2: The Ballast of Colonization

From introduced species to the slave trade, ballast has had a huge impact on our world.

In this episode, host Elin Kelsey serves up a ballast-infused meal inspired by a ballast flora artist. Then she gets into the dark story of the slave trade, which was partly responsible for the ingredients, and steers us to former colonial outposts profoundly shaped by ballast—both the solid stuff and water. Ballast, it turns out, was a colonizer in its own right.


Ballast flora artist Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change project. And here’s a video as well.

How ballast built Savannah, Georgia.

The Slave Wrecks Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the slave ship the São José-Paquete de Africa and its ballast of iron bars.

The International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments.

If you didn’t get enough, here are the full versions of “The Cod Song”—“Them Cod is your cod, them cod is my cod!”—and the John Cabot Heritage Minute.

Elin’s Ballast Garden Salad

  • ½ cup oats
  • 1 finely diced fig
  • 1 tablespoon flax
  • lots of rocket (arugula)
  • a sprinkle of dried hibiscus
  • 2 teaspoons cumin

Elin suggests frying the oats in a little olive oil to give them a bit of crunch and giving the salad a light drizzle of oil.


Elin Kelsey Don’t you just love spring, when every plant is bursting with blossoms? This morning, when I plunged my hands into the dirt in my back garden I pulled up a healthy clump of worms, another reliable sign of the season—the early bird catches the worms, and …

But hang on a second. Things aren’t quite as they appear.

Those earthworms may seem like they’ve been around forever but they actually disappeared from most of Canada during the ice ages more than 10,000 years ago.

The worms you see clutched in the hands of toddlers across much of Canada and the northern United States these days turn out to be castaways. They arrived mixed in with the earth and stone ballast of the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch ships that colonized the American continent.

Worms spread so far that today we just simply assume they’ve always been here.

My name is Elin Kelsey and you are listening to the second episode in Hakai Magazine’s podcast series on ballast. Yup, ballast.


Elin Kelsey Ballast profoundly shaped the world and not just by inadvertently translocating worms.

All that rock and earth and the animals and plants that were accidentally loaded with them into ships’ hulls and then dumped in foreign lands bear witness to histories. Histories that are hidden in plain sight.

If you’ve ever been to New York City, chances are ballast shaped the ground you walked on.

Maria Thereza Alves If you are stepping on New York, you’re not stepping on New York. You might be stepping on Jamaica. You might be stepping on Bristol. You might be stepping on Sweden, on Norway.

So if you are in New York and you want to try to step on New York, to be on New York you would have to go to the center of Inwood Park. That would be your best bet. Everything else is basically colonial lands, colonial earth.

Elin Kelsey That’s Maria Thereza Alves. She’s an internationally acclaimed artist from Brazil.

Ballast flora is a category that is no longer very much used in botanical knowledge, but it was very much part of botanical studies in the 19th to early 20th century. These days, Maria works with a medium few, if any other artists, use: ballast flora.

Maria Thereza Alves And it is botanists that became interested in all these weird plants that were showing up in places that they weren’t supposed to be and they were curious as to why these plants were there.

Elin Kelsey The idea to grow ballast gardens began back in 2007 when Maria Thereza was commissioned and funded to grow a large-scale exhibition in Bristol, England. Here’s a clip from a video about the Seeds of Change project, produced by the Arnolfini art gallery.

Commentator So up until the turn of this century, ships would use earth and stones or anything that came to hand in the ports of exit if you like. Within that, would be seeds. The great discovery Maria Thereza had was that these seeds that came with the ballast that was offloaded when ships came into port could lie dormant for hundreds of years. This is really amazing because if you think, all of our ports are kind of full of all of that history lying in the riverbanks. She started out by researching all the sites around the city where ballast would have been dumped.

Elin Kelsey Maria Thereza is using something as tiny and fragile as individual seeds unearthed from historic ballast sites to change the way we see the global impacts of colonization.

She’s a seed artist germinating history.

Maria Thereza Alves And to me I am very interested in the plants that grow from this because they are witnesses to history that are not usually part of the history we know.

Elin Kelsey To understand this history, Maria Thereza has worked with horticultural experts and local communities to research ballast flora in numerous port cities including Marseille and Dunkirk in France; Reposaari in Finland; Liverpool, Exeter, Topsham, and Bristol in the UK; and, of course, New York.

They’ve discovered that over the past two centuries, more than 400 species of plants, mostly of European origin, were growing on ballast grounds throughout New York and New Jersey.

Background Sweet william, hollyhock, sweet clover, opium poppy, …

Elin Kelsey I really love to cook, and as I cast my eye down the list of ballast plants that Nick Wray, the curator of the botanical garden in Bristol [University of Bristol Botanic Garden] sent me from Maria Thereza’s Seeds of Change installation, I suddenly have the brilliant idea of creating the world’s first ballast garden burgers.

Kat Pyne Elin, hello!

Elin Kelsey Hello. So good to have you.

Kat Pyne And I brought supplies for our ballast dinner.

Elin Kelsey Ballast Point beer?

Kat Pyne Ballast Point beer. And I am hoping they have some sort of good story on the back of the bottle.

Elin Kelsey I know a bit about Ballast Point beer, and the reason I know about it is that every time I looked up anything for ballast, for ballast food, all that comes up is the Ballast Point beer company.

Kat Pyne Cheers. This is a perfect way to start our ballast burgers. To ballast!

Kat Pyne Oh my goodness, that smells so good.

Elin Kelsey I had this idea that we would make ballast burgers—ballast garden burgers—only from ingredients that came as ballast plants, so plants that were brought from other places to Britain or brought from other places to New York City.

Well, I think the core of our ingredients, and this one shocked me because when I think of Britain all I ever think of is oatcakes and oatmeal, …

Kat Pyne Right!

Elin Kelsey But oats actually came from the Middle East and they found their way originally as ballast.

Kat Pyne Really? Oh, that one’s surprising.

Elin Kelsey How much of a purist are you? We might need to add a bit of olive oil.

Kat Pyne I won’t tell if you don’t tell.

Kat Pyne What about lettuce and tomato, all that sort of stuff?

Elin Kelsey Well, we do have a green—and that’s kind of a fascinating one—it’s rocket or arugula.

Kat Pyne Arugula came in ballast?

Elin Kelsey Arugula came in ballast and it came from the Mediterranean.

And then now for our seasoning, we have cumin, or we also have figs. So figs came from Cyprus and I’ve got some here. Do you think we should just chop a few?

Kat Pyne Absolutely.

Elin Kelsey Here, do you want to give them a chop and throw them in there.

We have nothing to hold it together. Let’s see. What will we use?

Kat Pyne What’s sticky that can go in our ballast … Maybe we do just have ballast salad.

Elin Kelsey Do you want to have ballast salad?

Kat Pyne Let’s have ballast salad!

Elin Kelsey Well, my friend, shall we give it a try? Cheers!

Kat Pyne Cheers, Elin.

Elin Kelsey First bite. It’s really good.

Kat Pyne That totally passes as real food. Well done. Well done, you.

Elin Kelsey The final recipe for the ballast garden salad is:

1/2 cup oats from northern Europe

1 finely diced common fig from west Asia

1 tablespoon flax, from Eurasia, cultivated by humans since 9000 BC

lots of rocket from the Mediterranean

a sprinkling of dried hibiscus from Asia

2 teaspoons cumin from North Africa

It’s fascinating to think that all these familiar ingredients first made it to our plates by mistake; bits of plants and seeds trapped in the crush of rocks in ship’s ballast.

They sound so ordinary. But it’s their places of origin that reveal a far darker story.

Mats Burström Well, ballast was a part of the slave trade and the ballast was actually taken from …

Elin Kelsey That’s Mats Burström. He’s a Swedish archaeologist and it was his book Ballast: Laden with History that first got us thinking about making this podcast series.

He tells me ballast was essential to the slave trade.

When I ask him to take me to the best place in North America to see the most things made from ballast he immediately mentions Savannah, Georgia.

I’ve been to Savannah, Georgia. It’s a beautiful place, with horse-drawn carriages, and cobbly streets, and big rock buildings. But Mats quickly reminds me where all those rocks came from.

Savannah is chockablock with ballast stones because of its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

Slave ships from Britain left their ports carrying cloth, and guns, and ironwork, and drink, and other products manufactured in Britain.

They sailed to the West African coast where they traded these goods, or sold them, in exchange for people—men, women, and children who had been captured as slaves.

The slaves endured horrific conditions as they journeyed from Africa to the West Indies. Tens of thousands died on ships during this “middle passage” across the ocean. Those who survived went on to work for nothing in deplorable conditions on plantations.

The sugar, coffee, tobacco, and other produce from the plantations was then carried back to Britain to be sold.

But, as Maria tells me, this system of trade wasn’t always followed.

Maria Thereza It wasn’t as we were taught in school. I was taught that manufactured goods in Britain were taken to Africa in exchange for enslaved peoples that were taken to the Americas that were then sold for colonial goods [and] shipped back to Britain. But actually it wasn’t quite true.

What was happening was that the enslaved people were being brought to the Americas. And the ships, if there was nothing ready, or there was, but you would have to wait. As the ship’s captain, they did not. They just rushed back, in ballast, to Europe, to begin the whole process again because the money made from enslaved people was four to six times more than colonial goods.

Elin Kelsey In 2015, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture confirmed the discovery of the São José, the first-ever archaeological documentation of the wreckage of a slave ship that had been carrying people when it sank.

Half of the more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique aboard this Portuguese slave ship drowned when it sank near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794.

Those who managed to survive were resold.

In the midst of the wreck, divers recovered more than 1,400 thick iron bars.

They are ballast iron bars—88 pounds each.

Stephen Lubkemann, a sociocultural anthropologist is studying these slave ships. It’s part of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project. As he says:

Stephen Lubkemann Iron ballast was often used and carried in these ships, both as a trade item—to trade for slaves—but also because there was a need to weight down the ship because in some sense, human bodies were not heavy enough, or were not as heavy as other types of cargo.

Elin Kelsey Iron ballast bars are real, haunting evidence of the 400-year global commerce in slaves that transformed 12.5 million Africans into a commodity and shipped them like cargo to the western hemisphere in bondage.

Throughout this podcast series, we’ve been focused on solid ballast, you know rocks and rubble, that sort of thing.

But for the past 140 years, ships have increasingly used water for ballast. When ships unload their cargo at a port, they take on vast amounts of seawater to maintain their stability, which has historically been dumped at the next destination.

Michael Gastner My name is Michael Gastner. I’m an assistant professor for mathematics, computer sciences, and statistics at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

The United Nations states 80 percent of world cargo is transported by ship. That’s the latest number for 2017.

Elin Kelsey Cargo ships now shift 11 billion tonnes of ballast water internationally each year.

Michael Gastner I think it was 150 liters per minute, so about one bathtub per minute that arrives at the U.S.

Elin Kelsey And the trouble is, all those bathtubs full of water may include non-native organisms from faraway countries.

About 30 years ago, a ship, likely from the Bay of Bengal, released ballast water containing a strain of cholera into coastal waters of Peru. The cholera contaminated shellfish. And when people ate the shellfish, the disease spread, killing 12,000 people across Latin America.

We now have the capacity to unintentionally move more organisms every month in the ballast water of ships than we used to move in one century.

It’s estimated that 7,000 invasive species are carried around the world in ballast water every day.

In New Scientist magazine author Fred Pearce writes:

Commentator That’s how the European zebra mussel got into North America’s Great Lakes, where billions of dollars were spent to keep it from blocking irrigation channels and water pipes. That is how the dinoflagellates that cause toxic “red tides” spread round the globe, how Chinese mitten crabs reached Europe, how Asian kelp made it to southern Australia, and how Mediterranean mussels came to carpet the coast of South Africa.

Elin Kelsey To combat this problem, a UN agency responsible for the safety and security of international shipping brought the Ballast Water Management Convention into force in September 2017. It requires all ships involved in international traffic to manage their ballast water to a certain standard. And new ships must install onboard ballast water treatment systems.

The global spread of invasive species via ballast reminds me of something Mats Burström told me about how ballast shaped the wildlife we see in Canada today.

Mats Burström Newfoundland is actually the part of North America that has …

Elin Kelsey He says the reason for this is that all those plants and animals arrived in Canada as part of ballast.

Animals, like the 19 different species of carabid beetles from Europe that now live in Newfoundland. Why did so many invasive species arrive in Canada’s easternmost province? Well, it’s all due to the cod.

YouTube Clip Mary and Phil Pardy singing their cod song.

Elin Kelsey When John Cabot, a Venetian-born navigator sponsored by King Henry VII of England, cast his eyes across the huge stocks of cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, he kicked off a commercial fishery that would impact Europe for centuries to come.

Heritage Minutes Clip Codfish so thick they stayed the progress of our ship. Your fleets will have no further need of Iceland. Fishes enough to feed this kingdom, oh, sire, until the end of time.

Elin Kelsey Oh, Canada loves its Heritage Minutes! And in this case that rousing crescendo feels pretty appropriate.

The demand for dried or salt fish in Catholic countries of Europe was so great it generated a massive seasonal fishery of hundreds of ships from France and Spain and Portugal and, later, mostly fishermen from the British Isles.

All of this talk of fish has got me feeling peckish. Think I’ll go back and finish that ballast garden salad with Kat.

Oh, and I can’t wait to see how she feels about one final ingredient.

Elin Kelsey We could be eating beetles. Because beetles, a number of Eurasian beetles, …

Kat Pyne Beetle ballast garden salad.

Elin Kelsey Yes, beetle ballast garden salad would be perfect. And beetles, I was just reading the other day, I didn’t know this … I knew people were increasingly eating beetles, more than two billion people on earth eat insects on a regular basis, and often beetles. But now the big thing to do in New York City and LA and these really trendy bars is to pair your beer, like our beer, with an insect. What’s the best insects for this beer? And beetles are often the choice.

Kat Pyne Really? A little crunch with your beer. Better than peanuts, I guess.

Elin Kelsey Well, maybe.

And with that culinary delight, I’m going to raise a glass in thanks to everyone on our support team today including Maria Thereza Alves, Mats Burström of Stockholm University, and Michael Gastner at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

This episode of Ballast was produced by Katrina Pyne and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker, Megan Osmond-Jones.

Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.

We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tune in to the next episode of the Ballast podcast where we take a deep dive with ballast and explore its uses in the natural world.

Episode 3: The Ballast of Living Things

It’s a sink or swim world.

Ballast doesn’t just help to stabilize objects on the surface of water; it comes in awfully handy underwater as well. In this episode we listen in on the vertical migrations of plainfin midshipmen, follow local adventure seeking freedivers to talk buoyancy and where to stash your ballast, learn how buoyancy control strategies of fish and cuttlefish inspired a water-free ballast system for ships, and find out which creatures have developed a penchant for swallowing stones.


Behold, the paper nautilus and more on the plainfin midshipman.

Watch Stéphane Mifsud smash the world record for longest non-oxygenated freedive in 2009.

Team Dédale introduces their air ballast biomimetic cargo ship.

If we piqued your interest on plesiosaurs, check out this Plesiosaurs 101 video.


Elin Kelsey When scuba divers achieve what is called neutral buoyancy, they can glide over the ocean floor without bobbing up or down—hovering—as if gravity no longer exists.

While we often think of ballast as something that stabilizes a ship, it’s ballast weights that allow divers to control their buoyancy underwater and to establish good positioning as well.

Freediver Chris Adair All right, let’s go start getting suited up.

Freediver I’ve got extra weights here, too.

Elin Kelsey But humans aren’t the only ones using ballast to control buoyancy.

In this third episode of the Ballast podcast, we follow local adventure seekers on a deep dive to find out how ballast is being used by bottom-dwelling octopuses, deep diving whales, and how it was even used by stone-swallowing, prehistoric marine reptiles. It’s all coming up in three, two, one …


Elin Kelsey If I asked you to name the greatest animal migration on earth, what would you say?

Wildebeest traversing African plains?

Humpback whales crossing oceans?

Or perhaps our avian friends flitting from one continent to another?

If you guessed any of these, sorry, you’d be wrong.

Stephanie Bush My name is Stephanie Bush, and I work at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Most fish have swim bladders and they can modify the amount of air that is in the swim bladder as they move up and down in the water column. It’s the largest animal migration on the planet.

Elin Kelsey Fish and invertebrates migrating up and down; bet that wasn’t what you pictured. And they adjust their buoyancy by having the perfect ratio of mass to gas, just like scuba divers.

But swim bladders aren’t the only way to get around this buoyancy challenge.

Stephanie Bush There’s been multiple evolutionary answers, if you will, to the question of how can you maintain buoyancy in the water column.

Elin Kelsey Our pal Stephanie at the Smithsonian isn’t just interested in fish. Her expertise lies with invertebrates, and more specifically with cephalopods, you know, squids and octopuses—the real brains of the underwater kingdom.

Cephalopods, for example, like the chambered nautilus.

Stephanie Bush So they have this externalled shell that has different chambers and they actually have a little tube that connects the chambers—that’s called a siphuncle. And they actually are able to pump gas and liquid into the different chambers using that siphuncle and that’s what allows them to maintain neutral buoyancy as they move up and down in the water column.

Elin Kelsey This idea of nautiluses using trapped air chambers for buoyancy really piqued my interest—it’s like they have an organic ballast tank that allows them to move up and down and to stay upright.

Chambered nautiluses are known to migrate half a kilometer up from the depths every night in search of crabs and fishes to eat just as their relatives have done for more than 500 million years.

After speaking with Stephanie, another animal has caught my fancy—argonauts.

That is Paul Smith’s theme music for the 1954 picture 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Argonauts fascinated fiction writer Jules Verne, and he wrote them into his groundbreaking sci-fi novel in 1870.

The first thing you need to know is that female argonauts—yeah, sorry men, only the females—secrete a thin, white, brittle shell which earned them the name paper nautilus.

For millennia, naturalists couldn’t determine the role of the female argonaut shell. Seriously, even Aristotle—Aristotle!—was stumped by these creatures.

In 2010, two scientists from Australia, Julian Finn and Mark Norman, made a startling discovery. And yes, it all comes back to this idea of a ballast tank.

Elin Kelsey So they’re actually gulping air or taking air from the surface into their shell?

Stephanie Bush Yeah.

Elin Kelsey How do they seal it? How do they get it in and how does it stay in?

Stephanie Bush When they go to the surface, they kind of turn the shell so that air is introduced into the shell. And then they turn it so it doesn’t bubble back out as they are diving down below the surface of the water. And then I think they just hold their body and kind of smush their body into the shell as much as they can to keep that gas. They’ve got to hold it in because as the pressure increases as they go deeper the gas would try to expand, you know, escape from the shell.

Elin Kelsey I love that scientific term—smush their body.

Elin Kelsey I find it astonishing to imagine these female argonauts—nestled with their arms tucked inside their beautiful, translucent homes—manipulating air they obtained from the water surface to move themselves up and down in the ocean.

Stephanie Bush Neutral buoyancy was one of the ways that they were able to branch off from the bivalves, gastropods, other mollusks, and sort of quote unquote invade the water column. And then of course that opened up a huge number of habitats for them.

Elin Kelsey Pretty amazing, right? Observing how animals use air to ballast themselves in the ocean is fascinating. And it turns out to have been the catalyst for a really good idea.

A few years back, Alexander Grant and his fellow students at McGill University created an award-winning design for an air ballast cargo ship. They wanted to control the stability and buoyancy of cargo ships without using ballast water.

Most people think of ballast as adding weight to hold a boat steady in the water when its cargo is removed. Alex and his teammates turned that thinking on its head.

Alexander Grant You could counteract that sinking with an upward force, like air.

Elin Kelsey To control buoyancy, they realized they could pump air into a ship when it was full instead of pumping water into it when it was empty.

Rather than looking to shipbuilders for solutions, they looked to nature.

Sound of plainfin midshipman fish making grunts from its swim bladder

Elin Kelsey That remarkable sound is a male plainfin midshipman fish contracting the drumming muscles of his swim bladder. The males construct nests and then grunt or hum to attract females to lay eggs in them.

Alexander Grant We pretty quickly converged on the swim bladders of fish. I think one of the lessons in the biomimicry playbook is if you see a motif repeat itself in nature over and over and over, that is a good design strategy. And the swim bladder is an excellent example of that. That’s found in thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of species of creatures on this planet.

Elin Kelsey So how did they then apply that design to a cargo ship?

Alexander Grant On the exterior of the side of the ship we would have inflatable, like, lungs. I think we called them lungs.

When the ship would get loaded, we would counteract the weight of the cargo by pumping air underwater into these lungs that would provide buoyancy for the ship.

Elin Kelsey And speaking of lungs …

Remember those divers we heard at the beginning of this episode? Well, they’re freedivers. Experts at holding their breath.

The current record for a freediver holding their breath, is … 11 minutes, 35 seconds.

Yes. You heard that right. According to the International Association for the Development of Apnea, which records all freediving world records, the current non-oxygenated record, which means the diver couldn’t hyperventilate with oxygen before holding their breath underwater without moving, is 11 minutes, 35 seconds, set by Stéphane Mifsud in 2009.

To help me understand the forces at play as we humans go deeper and deeper underwater, I called local freediver Chris Adair. Chris runs Bottom Dwellers Freediving, which is a freediving instruction and charter service company based out of Victoria, BC.

The fact that it’s winter now doesn’t seem to have deterred him or his fellow divers from taking the plunge when I meet them here in Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island. My producer Kat Pyne decided to tag along, and best of all she’s brought a kayak so we won’t actually have to get wet.

Elin Kelsey It’s a chilly day. What did she say it was—8.7 °C?

Kat Pyne I think the water’s 8 °C today.

Elin Kelsey It’s freezing! Look, I have to wear these … what are these funny mittens called? Pogies? Hogies? Isn’t that a type of food?

Kat Pyne Let’s not drop the recorder in the ocean because I don’t want to go after it. How much money would it take to get you in the water with those guys this morning?

Elin Kelsey I’m cheap, so I’d go in the water for a little money, but I would never go freediving for even a lot of money.

Elin Kelsey Freedivers don’t use scuba tanks. Their lungs are their air tanks.

Chris Adair So diaphragm, chest, shoulders, neck. And then first level exhale, relax …

Elin Kelsey You see humans who want to explore underwater have the opposite problem of Alex’s air ballast cargo ship. In the case of the ship, they needed to add air to increase the buoyancy of that fully loaded ship.

Freedivers, on the other hand, have to use weights to counteract the air in their lungs and the buoyancy of their wetsuits, so that they can be as close as possible to being neutrally buoyant at specific depths.

Neutral buoyancy is that seemingly weightless feeling between floating and sinking.

So where do freedivers place the weights on their bodies to get as little drag as possible as they descend head first with their feet trailing behind?

Chris Adair When you actually start to freedive a lot, you start noticing that carrying all the weight on your hips, you’re not balanced. Whereas shifting some of the weight to your neck, you start trimming yourself out. And then competitive freedivers will eventually start wearing all their weights to drop like a lawn dart.

Elin Kelsey So all their weight on their neck?

Chris Adair Eventually.

Elin Kelsey When boats are adjusting their ballast, they’re moving weight on and off, in this case you’re holding that weight the whole time. How are you compensating? Adjusting?

Chris Adair We adjust and compensate depending on the depth we’re diving. For these students that I have, we do a maximum of a 20 meter depth in this course, so 66 feet.

Elin Kelsey Chris takes time to check and double-check that each student is properly weighted.

Chris Adair So we gotta put a little bit of weight on you, too. I’d say we’ll put a two-pounder on you. So what we’re doing there is we’re adjusting his weight so that he’s not too positive, but he’s still safe and buoyant at the surface.

Elin Kelsey In advanced freediving once a diver reaches a certain depth the air in their lungs is so compressed that they are no longer neutrally buoyant and they become negatively buoyant. It’s called the sink phase, or free fall, and it allows the divers to reach their target depth without expending energy. They don’t need to keep kicking to go down, they just sink.

Elin Kelsey So I just started holding my breath when they held their breath, and I’ve stopped and they’re still under.

Kat Pyne I’m trying to imagine just the pressure they must be feeling on their chests as they’re going down to 10 meters.

Elin Kelsey And pretty soon, when they go a little bit deeper, there’s actually enough pressure to squeeze their spleen [divers surface in background] and that squeezing of the spleen pushes more oxygen into their blood, so when they were talking about knowing their biology and knowing they can depend on those kind of physiological changes, that’s part of what allows them to stay calm when that gasping is in their …

Kat Pyne That’s wild. And they took so much care at the beginning to determine the exact amount of weight that they needed and where they needed to put it. They took some real time to do that and to make sure that as they’re going down it’s as stable and controlled as possible and that’s all ballast, that’s all science. Still not sure about those neck weights though.

Elin Kelsey Creepy, but effective, clearly effective.

Elin Kelsey As Kat and I sat in our kayak waiting to see how the divers would fare, I couldn’t help but think of sperm whales who routinely dive a kilometer deep, and elephant seals who can hold their breath for two hours.

So how do they do it? The ribs of whales and seals bend easily under pressure without breaking. And, right before they dive, marine mammals exhale, expelling almost all of the air in their lungs, which reduces their buoyancy and makes it easier to dive.

Marine mammals also make the most of what little oxygen they have left. They stop breathing and dramatically drop their heart rates. They also shunt their blood toward their heart, brain, and muscles, temporarily shutting down organs such as their kidneys and liver, while they’re hunting.

Like human divers, they also conserve energy. Their streamlined body shape helps them to glide downwards, without moving a muscle, extending their oxygen stores for as long as possible.

In other words, extreme freediving.

But what about animals that need a little help reaching their desired depth or finding balance in the water?

Before we end this podcast we want to float one more idea past you.

Brace yourself. We’re taking ballast right back to where we started: rocks.

It turns out that penguins, sea lions, crocodiles, and even giant prehistoric marine reptiles swallow rocks.

Scientists call those stones, gastroliths and there’s a lot of talk about whether these animals actively swallow stones to ballast themselves in the water.

Donald Henderson I’m Donald Henderson, and I’m with the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta.

So gastroliths, the name means literally stomach-stone, and a variety of animals have been found with stones in their stomachs and some of the stones, certainly for prehistoric animals, some of the stones aren’t found where the animals were living or died, the animals went out of their way to go and get them.

So the other major group that’s found with stomach stones are the plesiosaurs. So these are the marine reptiles; their bodies are completely transformed for life in water, they never came on land, and they’re almost always found with stomach stones.

Elin Kelsey We don’t know whether these massive long-necked swimming prehistoric reptiles used the stones for deep dives or to find balance at the surface, like how a ship uses ballast.

Donald Henderson I actually developed some software and worked out the math to see what effect a volume of stones would have on the ability of a plesiosaur to sink and it doesn’t, it’s absolutely negligible. The thing I did notice was that the super long-necked ones, if they were floating at the surface and bobbing around, they stabilized sooner with a small amount of stones than without stones.

Elin Kelsey Don isn’t the only scientist using math to try to sort out whether animals swallow stones for ballast.

Math enthusiast The Archimedes force is given by the formula F-buoyant equals g times ρ-sea, the sum of the volumes. Now ρ-sea is the density of seawater around Crozet Islands at a temperature of roughly 6 °C …

Elin Kelsey That fancy math is the work of David Beaune and his colleagues as they attempted to calculate the mass of stones required for a 12-kilogram king penguin to reach neutral buoyancy—or what they call stone mass ballasting—at various depths. And what did they conclude?

Reading from the scientific paper In conclusion, gastroliths might have multiple functions in king penguins, for example aiding in digestion, organ preservation, as well as buoyancy control during diving.

Elin Kelsey Yup, you got it. They don’t know. Across the natural world, animals have adapted in wondrous and mysterious ways to their environments, and we may never know for sure whether these stone-swallowing animals are ballasting themselves or not.

And just like that once again my mind is blown by the infinite resourcefulness of animals and the vast uses of ballast.

I’m going to take a cue from our freedivers and with a big breath thank all of our support team today.

Stephanie Bush from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Donald Henderson with the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Alexander Grant and his fellow designers on Team Dédale when they were students at McGill University, and our freedivers led by Chris Adair of Bottom Dwellers here in Victoria.

This episode of Ballast was produced by Katrina Pyne and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker Megan Osmond-Jones.

Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.

We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

Tune in to the next episode of the Ballast podcast where we go back in time to look at how the very concept of ballast has been used in some pretty dark and twisted ways.

Oh and one last thing—if you’re listening to this podcast and think it’s a good idea to throw on some weights, jump in the ocean, and try freediving on your own, please think again. Don’t try this at home!

On that note, I’ll ask my friend the freediver Chris Adair and his crew to take us out …

Freedivers in unison Hook! One 1,000, two 1,000, three 1,000. Hook! One 1,000 …

Episode 4: The Ballast in Your Life

A little emotional ballast can help keep us afloat when life gets heavy.

In this episode of Ballast, we sit in on Elin’s impromptu therapy session to explore ballast as a psychological metaphor and look at how ballast can lend emotional stability. We also look at how the concept of ballast has been twisted in dark ways throughout history to justify atrocities such as the Holocaust.


How our guest Sabina Nawaz suggests using ballast as a tool for finding work-life balance.

For another excellent breakdown of the trolley problem, check out this clip from NBC’s The Good Place in which fictional moral philosopher Chidi Anagonye is given a fantastical, but far-too-real (and slightly gory), demonstration of the trolley problem.


Elin Kelsey When we think of ballast, we think of that stuff, that weight, that is carried deep within the cargo of a ship. Its presence unseen, but its impact unmistakable.

It works too well as a metaphor for the things in our lives that give us emotional stability that we’d be remiss if we didn’t explore that a little.

My name is Elin Kelsey and you are listening to the fourth episode in Hakai Magazine’s podcast series on ballast.

So in this episode of the Ballast podcast, we look for ballast no further than ourselves. Ballast is something we carry with us wherever we go. And being properly ballasted affects our interactions with the world; it stabilizes us in times of turmoil.

It turns out there’s a lot of room for ballast buried deep within our own psyches.

So let’s see what’s hiding out, down there.


Elin Kelsey We’ve all seen what happens when we as humans lose balance.

I mean seriously we see it all the time in the celebrity world. Remember Britney’s breakdown in 2007?

[News clip of Britney avoiding the press in 2007.]

Who didn’t empathize with her urgent need to cut her hair? I know I owe a few haircuts of mine to painful breakups and heartfelt losses.

Hundreds of years ago, artists struggled to stay even-keeled. Michelangelo took more than four years to paint The Last Supper on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, all the while tormented by the fate of his own deteriorating health, and fear for his immortal soul. In one of his own poems, you can almost feel the pitch of Michelangelo’s discontent as he takes us on a tour of his body’s aches and pains:

Person reading Michelangelo’s poem “Michelangelo Paints the Ceiling”
A goiter it seems I got from this backward craning
like the cats get there in Lombardy, or wherever
—bad water, they say, from lapping their fetid river.
My belly, tugged under my chin, ’s all out of whack.
Beard points like a finger at heaven. Near the back
of my neck, skull scrapes where a hunchback’s lump would be.
I’m pigeon-breasted, a harpy! Face dribbled—see?—
like a Byzantine floor, mosaic. From all this straining
my guts and my hambones tangle, pretty near.
Thank God I can swivel my butt about for ballast.

Elin Kelsey Ballast! Michelangelo, painter, sculptor, poet, architect extraordinaire, envisioned his own butt as ballast.

Darwin, too, was a worrier.

In her wonderful book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities, Claudia Kalb writes:

Person reading He fretted about his children, about his work, about his deadlines, about his reputation, and, almost always, about what ailed him. Darwin, it could be said, suffered from anxiety, one of the most common conditions on the planet.

During the 40,000-mile journey from England to South America, Australia, and Africa, Darwin experienced rough seas and navigational mishaps, and struggled with occasional bouts of fever, intestinal distress, a swollen knee, occasional boils and headaches, and severe seasickness. He spent much of his time at sea nibbling on raisins—his father’s prescription—lying in his hammock, and retching.

The Beagle journey, scheduled to last two years, stretched to five. When Darwin returned to England in October of 1836, he was a changed man and he wrote in his health diary, along with the other symptoms that plagued him the rest of his life, that he continually suffered from bouts of hysterical crying.

Elin Kelsey Sounds like a breakdown to me.

And Darwin would have found himself in good company today.

In August 2018, Barnes & Noble—the largest book retailer in the US—announced a huge surge in the sales of books about anxiety; a 25 percent jump in a single year.

Globally, the World Health Organization say that almost 300 million people have an anxiety disorder.

It’s difficult to maintain stability no matter how brilliant or creative or influential one might be.

We need ballast in our lives; we need that thing that keeps us grounded. I mean seriously there’s no way Oprah has managed to keep her cool the way she has all these years, channelling her enthusiasm into an empire worth roughly 3.5-billion dollars, if she didn’t have a Gayle King.

We all need a Gayle King.

So who better to talk to us about stress and the need to ballast ourselves than students.

I stopped by the University of Victoria campus to find out what keeps students levelheaded in times of turmoil when they feel shaken to the core, because I don’t know about you but when I think of being shaken to my core, I always think of exams.

Elin Kelsey I know it’s a busy time of year for students, there’s exams, there’s the holidays coming up, all of those things. How do you maintain your own emotional ballast?

Student streeter I actually do choir on Mondays. I do that every week; it gets me out of the house every so often.

Student streeter Naps and, just, I call my brother and my mom a lot just to chat and complain.

Student streeter Exercise and meditation mostly that help me balance.

Student streeter Absolutely friends and family. On a less serious note, beer really helps and my neighbors just got a puppy so that helps, too.

Student streeter I’d say weed, because it will help you fall asleep at night and sleep is so important when you’re stressed out and when you can’t eat and when you just need to relax and stabilize. I find that that really helps me stabilize.

Student streeter I’d say friends is a good ballast. Friends and beer.

Elin Kelsey Of course, we also ran into folks who were having a harder time ballasting themselves.

Elin Kelsey What’s your secret ballast?

Student streeter I don’t think I have one.

Student streeter Honestly, I don’t know. Normally like working out and going to the gym would, but I’m not doing that right now.

Student streeter It’s midterm season right now, so I’m sinking hard. I’m not balanced at all.

Elin Kelsey Finding out how students manage their stress got me thinking about how I use ballast.

Sabina Nawaz When we do the coaching piece, the more open and vulnerable you can be the better. And I might push some buttons.

Elin Kelsey Meet Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach. She works one on one with senior executives to help them become better leaders.

Sabina used the metaphor of emotional ballast in an article she wrote about executive coaching techniques for the Harvard Business Review. When I called her to ask her more about that idea, she told me ballast is more than just seeking life balance. It’s a way of thinking about how to create more stability in our lives.

Sabina Nawaz The term work-life balance is quite hackneyed and overused and some people will say there’s no such thing as work-life balance, it’s work-life integration. Some people will say, “Oh, my work-life balance sucks,” and some people will say, “Oh my work-life balance is great,” and so on and so forth. And I think it’s a very dynamic thing. It is like ballast where it shifts. It needs to shift to different parts of the hold of the ship because you need to pay attention to different sides at different points in time.

Elin Kelsey I really love that fluidity of it and the one thing I’m really coming to understand about ballast is just what you said. You’re constantly compensating and moving things and adding things and removing things and then picking new things up again so I think you’re onto something quite wonderful.

Sabina Nawaz Thank you, yah, it’s really fluid. No moment is the same as the moment before on the sea and it’s the same with our lives. Things change from moment to moment and certainly from day to day, week to week, month to month, and for me it’s also not moving tons of ballast from one side to the other or from one aspect of your life to another aspect, but making incremental shifts and having some strategies in mind to create more control and stability. And when I say different aspects of different parts of your life, the article references four areas: your intellectual, physical, spiritual, and emotional sides.

Elin Kelsey I’m selfishly now wanting you to apply this to me. I’ve been feeling a bit of a rocky seas recently and I just wondered if it wouldn’t be too bold of me to ask you, if you could, can you use me as an example of how you might coach someone using this ballast idea?

Sabina Nawaz Absolutely let’s give it a shot, Elin. If you’re open to it, that’s very courageous of you.

Elin Kelsey Thank you, I may regret this, but I think I’m in.

I have a problem which I assume hits other people. I am in one of those periods right now where I have crazy monkey mind. My mind is jumping constantly. For example, right now I have a few grant proposals I have to get written, I’m doing a book proposal … I have some workshops I’m doing … I feel like I’m making the ship tip all over the place rather than smoothly sailing … I can’t sit still long enough to get out these ideas that feel exciting to me …

Sabina Nawaz You’re ahead of time, shifting the ballast before it needs to be shifted because somehow the current space, whichever the current space is, feels uncomfortable for some reason.

Elin Kelsey That’s brilliant. I think you’re right. I think I’m moving things before I’m even in the water maybe. Or I’m projecting …

Elin Kelsey Sabina talks me through several hypotheses, helping me to see that I spend a lot of time living in the future, living in possibility, imagining what we could bring to the world.

Sabina Nawaz Yes, and then another thing that happens in the future is anxiety. Somebody wise once told me that depression is about when we are worried about the past, and anxiety is when we are worried about the future. I wonder if your pivot is so much to the future, that there’s all this wonderful possibility, but then somewhere there’s some sort of fear or anxiety about the future too that then untethers you and keeps you shifting that ballast before you’ve even hit the water and set sail.

Elin Kelsey I think that’s very perceptive. You are very good. I think you are right.

Sabina Nawaz Yes, therefore, I’d better hedge my bets, and I’d better stack the ballast everywhere I can. So, of course, I am never setting sail. Because now, my ship is weighted down with too much ballast everywhere.

Elin Kelsey I am sinking myself! That’s brilliant.

Elin Kelsey Ballast does make a great metaphor, but we’re not the first ones to make that connection. Throughout history, the concept of ballast has been used and misused—sometimes in dark and twisted ways.

In the 1930s, the Nazi government used propaganda movies to persuade the public that people living with disabilities were a drag on the health of the nation.

The disabled lived what the Nazi party called “ballasted existences.” They were targeted and objectified as “beings of lesser worth,” as “life unworthy of life,” and as “useless eaters.”

That’s how they are depicted in this clip from a 1937 Nazi film called Opfer der Vergangenheit, which translates as Victims of the Past. It’s about mentally and physically disabled people and the danger and drain they are to the Aryan nation.

[Clip from Nazi propaganda film.]

The seeds of the Nazi’s philosophy go back to 1920 when Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche demanded that all those who lead a “ballast existence,” and thus were a “burden to society,” be killed. This heinous idea eventually gave birth to the Holocaust.

Adam Muller Many of the eugenicists like Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche, from who we get the idea of human ballast in the early 1920s, they’re taking this idea of ballast and stripping it free of all but its weight, right, it has no function for them except weight, it just is a drag on things.

Elin Kelsey That’s Adam Muller. He’s the director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Manitoba.

Of course this rhetoric doesn’t just come up in history.

President Trump news clip We have people coming into the country—or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.

Adam Muller Viewed that way, I think metaphorically today we sort of see the idea of social undesirables, for example, of evoking something like the same sense that there are individuals amongst us who matter less as human beings because somehow or other they don’t fit into the social whole. I think if you look at some of the particularly American language surrounding illegal immigration, for example, surrounding racial inequality and inequality generally, for example, you find that language saturated with the sense that those individuals who are suffering and striving, those individuals who are in need, are in need for reasons that don’t somehow justify us extending to them a conception of their fundamental equality. So viewed as less equal, viewed as unduly needy, they then get conceived of as a kind of burden that needs to be somehow jettisoned or overcome.

Elin Kelsey It’s easy to point fingers at Trump’s clumsy attempts to cast immigrants in the guise of ballast existences—of dead weights on US society—especially as he seems to be jettisoning the ballast he needs for the economy, as well as preventing that valuable ballast from even boarding the ship.

But Adam quickly points out that we all harbor elitist assumptions. He sees this time and again with his students.

And, he’s got a way of helping them to recognize these feelings.

Adam Muller For me what I try and do, I try to shake students out of a kind of easy moral complacency, which, although admirable, of course I want my students to be egalitarian minded, nevertheless I think it’s useful for them to realize the ways in which they harbor assumptions that are inegalitarian, and so one of the ways to do this comes from moral philosophy via this thing called the trolley problem.

Elin Kelsey The trolley problem thought experiment plays out like this. Imagine you are driving a train that is about to run over five people who are tied to the tracks ahead. But, there’s a split in the track ahead of you and you have a lever that, if pulled, would drive the train over to a second track where it would only kill one person.

Would you pull that lever?

Philosopher Philippa Foot devised this dilemma back in 1967. It remains popular because it forces us to think about how to choose when there are no good options.

Most people say, yes, they’d kill one person to save the other five, and that’s consistent with the philosophical principle of utilitarianism, which argues that the morally correct decision is the one that maximizes the well-being for the greatest number of people.

But we can alter the experiment to learn a lot about people’s inner feelings and prejudices.

What if the person you’d have to kill was from your hometown and the five on the tracks were immigrants?

What if the people on the track are sick or old?

Would it change anything for you?

The metaphor of ballast as dead weight stands in sharp contrast to the way Sabina and the students used ballast as a positive emotional metaphor.

Ancient Chinese scholars in the Qing Dynasty, for instance, used ballast as a metaphor for peaceful, restorative practices.

They were said to have sought spiritual ballast through deep philosophical contemplation in the seclusion of classical gardens.

Authors Kim Cheng and Patrick Low give voice to our common need for spiritual ballast, especially in the turbulent times we now find ourselves.

Person reading Turbulent times are indeed presently upon us. Life is, and can be topsy-turvy, and more so, many people are experiencing a terrible emotional nausea as our lifeboats toss to and fro. So what we need is faith, hope, and something more immensely positive. Perhaps spiritual ballast would keep us level, cool, and composed—it would buoy us up and give us a sense of stability as we sail through rough and choppy waters.

Elin Kelsey And that brings us right back to Sabina’s notion of paying attention to how we create ballast, or stability, across the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual sides of our lives. Something, I’m happy to say, those students at UVic seemed to knowingly understand.

Student streeter With finals coming up and end of term projects and everything like that it’s definitely hard to find things that stabilize you at that time.

Student streeter I always find my roommates kind of help me out a lot. I live with three people and they kind of help me balance. If I need to do something else other than study, that’s really nice so, they’re like, alright, let’s give you a break and a mental health day so I use them as a getaway, I guess.

Elin Kelsey You’re a busy guy working at a busy bar at a busy time of year, what gives you emotional ballast what keeps you stable?

Student streeter Friendship. And love.

Elin Kelsey Thank you to everyone who kept this episode buoyed up.

Sabina Nawaz, my executive coaching guru; Adam Muller from the University of Manitoba; and the wonderful, if not highly anxious students, who spoke with us during their exam season from the University of Victoria.

This episode of Ballast was produced by Katrina Pyne and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker, Megan Osmond-Jones.

Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.

We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

Be sure to tune in to the last episode of the Ballast podcast where we peer into the future to look at how ballast, one of the world’s oldest technologies, touches everything from the inadvertent spread of cholera to New York’s super skinny skyscraper craze.

Episode 5: The Ballast in the Sky

Ballast: it’s not just for ships and giggles.

Ballast might be old technology, but in this final episode of the Ballast podcast we explore how this basic feat of engineering is now being used in planes and state-of-the-art building designs, and discuss how the future of shipping may never be the same. Will it include ballast?

Show Notes

Check out the Steinway Tower at 111 West 57th Street in New York City, the world’s skinniest skyscraper.

And here’s a Hakai Magazine article on Singapore’s massive floating suburbs by David Adam.

Meet the Kairos, the world’s largest liquid natural gas bunker supply vessel that’s also ballast free.

Show Transcript

Pilot Okay, come on up.

Passenger Good morning. Can I sit in the front?

Pilot You can.

Passenger Thank you.

Pilot Hello, how are you?

Passenger It will fit.

Pilot It fits in the pouch. Perfect.

Pilot All right come on in. Hello, I just have to tuck your bag back here in the back. If you need to grab anything out of there you can. Hello.

Passenger Hey, how are ya?

Pilot Good, yourself?

Passenger Really good.

Elin Kelsey Ah, the sound of folks getting set to take a floatplane on a beautiful sunny day in Victoria, British Columbia. Puts you in mind of adventure, doesn’t it?

One thing I hadn’t noticed before, though, is how much the deckhands talk about weight.

Pilot So, Calvin, you’ve got 34 pounds here.

Deckhand Okay, I had 24 so the total is going to be 58.

Elin Kelsey My name is Elin Kelsey and you are listening to the fifth and final episode in our Hakai Magazine podcast series on … ballast!

In this episode, we fly you to the top of some of the world’s skinniest skyscrapers to look at how ballast is shaping the design of the future. Hope you’re not afraid of heights!


Elin Kelsey Way back in 1904, the Wright brothers added 70 pounds of iron bars as ballast to their plane to shift the center of gravity forward. Adding ballast improved the handling of the plane so much that Wilbur Wright was able to fly the first full circuit of the airfield in Dayton, Ohio.

At this point in our ballast series, you might not be surprised to learn that by adding weight to planes, we make them safer to fly. But, as Praeman Pili explained, there’s more to the art of ballasting than just stuffing weight into the baggage compartment.

Elin Kelsey What do you do here?

Praeman Pili I am a pilot for Harbour Air; have been for about 12 years now.

Elin Kelsey What’s the difference between thinking about how to ballast a floatplane versus how to ballast a plane that might be taking off on a solid runway?

Praeman Pili It’s quite similar, actually. They all have to be within their certain envelope of how the manufacturer has designed the plane. So we just get a little bit better idea of how the plane is ballasted by a visual look. Before we even do the weight and balance we can look at the plane and see that it’s floating in a particular way or not.

Elin Kelsey So we’re looking at this plane in front of me, which I think you are about to load, right? Talk me through that. How is it ballasted right now?

Praeman Pili Right now it’s completely empty—maybe just a little bit forward because of the fuel in the front tank. But I can tell by looking at it that the heels of the floats are completely out of the water so I know that’s a good sign that the floats don’t have a leak in them, as well as the bottom of the plane, or the general stance of the plane, is about even. Usually, when we are loaded we get a bit farther aft, so the back of the plane will squat a bit more.

We can move passengers forward and back. We do have a pretty good envelope that we are allowed to use. Like on the side of a whiz wheel we call it. Just an easy way to calculate where our weight and balance sits. So it’s just like moving a slide ruler around.

Elin Kelsey So I am having terrible flashbacks to high school math when I actually used slide rules. I thought they were extinct!

Praeman Pili We brought it back. We resurrected it!

Elin Kelsey Who knew?

Harbour Air is using a circular slide rule—an instrument created in the 1600s—to calculate the weight and balance needed to ballast their planes.

And they’re not alone. Pilots all over the world still use them.

Officially called the E6B flight computer, whiz wheels employ logarithmic scales to perform almost every calculation needed: conversions, time and distance and fuel, wind calculations, and more.

It’s pretty impressive given that whiz wheels are just simple circular cardboard and plastic disks that pivot around a center grommet.

Praeman Pili They can do a quick calculation as people climb in the plane or as the safety briefing is going, we do our calculation on where the weight of the plane is going to be.

Elin Kelsey What Praeman is telling me is that much of the ballast on a float plane is, well, us!

Which is why aviation agencies and large commercial airlines pay attention to how much passengers weigh.

Praeman Pili Like Transport Canada has a version of our body weights so in the summertime it will be a certain weight for everybody, including their clothes and their average carry-on. And then in the wintertime, because they are wearing more clothes, they add about 10 pounds, at a certain date, just to take into account that people are going to be weighing more.

Elin Kelsey And, in terms of in different countries, people are different sizes.

Praeman Pili Yes, they are. So in Canada we have our specific sizes and they have upped it a little bit as we get a little larger. So every, maybe, five years it actually has gone up. Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that it has gone up.

Elin Kelsey Well, they’ve just changed the Canada Food Guide to be more plant based so maybe that will make us all healthier …

Praeman Pili Maybe a little bit.

Elin Kelsey … and maybe it will come down.

Praeman Pili It depends!

Elin Kelsey Across the Pacific, engineers and architects working in an entirely different industry are also using ballast to help them design lighter, stronger structures up in the clouds.

Elin Kelsey What’s it look like from up there?

Benedict Tranel Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. For me, I personally really enjoy heights. I think it’s wonderful to have that kind of view and there is something interesting about going up that height in a building where it’s more like being on an airplane when you are flying in on approach to a city and you’re looking down and you can see everything.

Elin Kelsey Benedict Tranel is an architect at a global architecture and design firm called Gensler. And what he is describing is the view from the top of Shanghai Tower, the second-highest building in the world; a building he helped design.

Shanghai Tower stretches up 128 floors.

That’s more than half a kilometer—632 meters to be exact—above the ground, in a densely packed city, on the east coast of China, where they have typhoons.

Benedict Tranel A very interesting aspect of very tall buildings is that wind is really the controlling factor for them so as you mentioned typhoons, which generate some very strong winds, dictate the engineering of the tower, structurally, in a lot of ways.

Elin Kelsey Very strong winds, hmm? What Ben is really talking about is this:

CNN newscast clip Strong winds … Here’s the latest: 165 kilometers per hour … sustained winds … has not struck the shores of Shanghai in over 30 years so this is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Look at some …

Elin Kelsey So how do architects and engineers make it possible for people to live and work in buildings rising up more than half a kilometer into the sky in gale-force winds?

Yes, ballast!

Benedict Tranel You can make the building structurally sound, but it can still generate acceleration that people inside the building can feel and that makes them feel very uncomfortable.

Elin Kelsey Ah, “uncomfortable,” that handy euphemism like when the pilot says we are about to pass through some “rough air.” What Ben really means is:

Short clip from song Scattered dry heaves. My stomach’s churning.

Elin Kelsey That song is called “Seasick,” by Silversun Pickups. We thought it would be appropriate to introduce this next section.

Benedict Tranel And seasickness is exactly the sense that you feel when you feel this acceleration.

Elin Kelsey And that’s where ballast comes in. Architects work with engineers to add ballast counterweights to the top of very tall buildings. The weight dampens, or reduces, the rate of motion. The buildings might still move in the wind, but as long as the motion is happening slowly enough, it’s not perceptible to the people inside.

Dana Getman Sometimes I think there’s a misperception that the damper is in any way related to the structural stability of the building. And that’s not the case at all. The building is incredibly stable and very well engineered. The damper is really just a way of keeping it in high wind conditions so that you don’t perceive the natural movements within the building.

Elin Kelsey That’s Dana Getman. She’s an associate principal at SHoP Architects.

Think of mass damper ballast like the weight in a grandfather clock. Engineers attach 300- to 800-tonne pieces of steel or concrete on a floor near the top of a tower, adjusting the chains to balance them so they move out of phase with local winds.

Like Ben, Dana knows about building tall buildings. But not just any tall buildings—Dana is talking about her work designing the world’s skinniest skyscraper, in New York City.

Clip from video In New York, the spiritual home of the skyscraper, a new generation of super skinny high-rises are changing the face of the city. Super skinny is on the rise. According to research carried out by the Skyscraper Museum in New York, there are 18 super skinny towers either complete or currently under construction in the city.

Elin Kelsey A building is considered to be skinny or slender when its height is more than seven times its width at its narrowest point.

This 7:1 height-to-width ratio was thought to be the limit for skinniness. Anything skinnier couldn’t remain rigid enough to prevent its occupants from experiencing motion sickness in high winds.

111 West 57th blows those stats out of the water.

This super skinny skyscraper is built atop the former home base of the famous Steinway and Sons piano makers.

When it is completed 111 West 57th will rise 433 meters tall.

Its base is just 13 meters wide—that’s narrower than a four-lane highway—creating a staggering height-to-width ratio of 24:1.

What role does ballast play in enabling such an extraordinarily slim design?

Dana Getman Well, it’s definitely an important part of the design process.

Elin Kelsey I read somewhere it’s like having a hundred African elephants’ worth of weight up there. Why does putting all of those elephants at the top of a skinny tower make that tower not feel like it’s moving?

Dana Getman Another way to think about it … I tried to explain to a kids’ group once, if someone is holding your head down, it is very difficult to move. Whereas if they are holding your ankles, it’s easier for your head to move.

Elin Kelsey That’s great!

Elin Kelsey So what’s the future of skyscrapers? Is there a limit to how tall they can become?

Benedict Tranel That’s a great question. I think people have been speculating on that since the invention of the elevator, which allowed us to build taller than what somebody could reasonably walk up in terms of the stairs. You always think there must be some upward limit and certainly that seems like it would be true, but I guess I won’t speculate as to what the final height might be.

Elin Kelsey You’re not a betting man.

Benedict Tranel [Laughs]

Elin Kelsey Wise not to bet, especially given the idea for an elevator on the moon, extending into space, well over halfway to the Earth. Seriously, look it up. Lunar elevator. But I digress.

Ben believes lessons from building ultra tall skyscrapers could influence more environmentally friendly building design in more down-to-earth, everyday contexts.

Benedict Tranel I wonder if there is some technology or adaptation of what we already know that we will find some way to make our buildings lighter and structurally more efficient using less material, which is less embodied carbon, and energy into the structure.

Elin Kelsey While Ben is busy thinking about how ballast technology might improve the environmental impact of city construction, Singapore is seeking new ways to build skyscrapers on the sea. In an issue of Hakai Magazine, David Adam describes how Singapore wants to build massive floating suburbs.

David Adam reading from his story Now Singapore is looking for another way to grow. Instead of building more land, the city wants to build on the sea’s surface, with a system of giant floating rafts tethered to the seabed. But first, engineers have to solve an important problem: how do we stop the rafts from wobbling?

Elin Kelsey So, David, that’s really fascinating, this idea of building out onto the oceans. Do you think ballast might have a role in helping Singapore with its wobbly suburbs situation?

David Adam I am not a marine engineer, sadly, but I imagine to a marine engineer, these kinds of giant rafts are themselves ballast. I think what they’re doing is that they’re focusing more on ways to dissipate the energy from the waves. I am not sure a piece of ballast would do that. If it was attached to these floating platforms, I suspect it would just make it rise slightly higher in the water, and maybe that might make the wobble worse. I don’t know, maybe they haven’t thought of it. Maybe you should get in touch with them and suggest it. You might solve their problem for them.

Elin Kelsey Which brings us right back to the sea and ships.

But do ships really need ballast?

Remember back in episode two when we talked about how most ships now use water to ballast their loads, and how all those ships moving water from one place to another have created a real problem with invasive species?

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that the real future for ballast at sea is, well, no ballast.

That’s right. The race is on to create a ballast-free future.

The world’s first ballast-free liquefied natural gas [LNG] bunkering vessel is currently being built. When it’s completed, it will supply small-scale LNG terminals along the Baltic Sea coast. The ship has an innovative hull design and other features that enable it to retain its stability without storing and transporting ballast water. Instead, local seawater is slowly circulated through trunks beneath the cargo area. Because the water is constantly circulating in and out, the transport of invasive species from one part of the ocean to another is reduced.

And so, we end our ballast series right where we started, with ships moving vast cargo loads of stuff around the planet and the ballast they do, or increasingly, do not carry creating vast and lasting impacts on the world.

We loved stretching our exploration of ballast to include everything from stone swallowing plesiosaurs to the metaphoric role of ballast in Nazi propaganda to the technological applications of ballast to the creation of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.

Podcasts are new for us so if you enjoyed this series, be sure to rate and review the episodes and let us know what you think the next series should be.

I’d like to heap a boatload of thanks on the folks who helped us create this episode:

Praeman Pili, David Van Zigler, and Gus Alfrink at Harbour Air; Benedict Tranel at Gensler; and Dana Getman at SHoP Architects.

This episode of Ballast was produced by Katrina Pyne and me, Elin Kelsey. Our original theme music is by Tobin Stokes. The team also includes Jude Isabella, Adrienne Mason, Mark Garrison, David Garrison, and our fact checker, Megan Osmond-Jones.

Check out hakaimagazine.com/ballastpodcast for more on each episode.

We are an endeavor of Hakai Magazine and are produced next to the sea in historic downtown Victoria, British Columbia.