There is room in Davy Jones’ locker

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Every year in New Zealand, two or three people are buried at sea. As new regulations come into force barring sea burials in all but five places around the country, Carla Green takes a look at what it means to rest in peace under the waves.

Burying a body at sea can be complicated.

First, you have to choose a casket - something biodegradable, preferably.

Then, you have to make sure the casket will sink - usually, by perforating it with holes and weighting it down somehow.

Some people put lead weights inside the casket.

Others choose to coat part of the casket in cement.

Then, you have to take it to sea - probably in a helicopter or a boat.

And if you are in Otago, there is only one place you can take the casket - 25 nautical miles (46km) southeast of Otago Harbour.

Once there, you carefully lift the casket overboard and lower it into the ocean.

It will hit the water with a small splash.

Usually, the casket will float, momentarily, until mass overwhelms buoyancy and it begins its journey downwards.

It will sink below the surface of the water, waves surging up around it to seal the gap between air and sea.

At 10m below sea level, the casket will start to sink past photosynthesising phytoplankton, minuscule creatures busily processing light into energy.

At 80m, it might brush past a javelin fish, a half-metre long silvery animal that feeds on octopus.

At 600m, it could pass a smooth oreo fish, with its flat body and eyes the size of a gold coin.

At 650m, the casket might even encounter a giant squid, its tentacles swaying gently in the water.

The casket will sink, and sink, slowly accelerating as it takes on more water and the pressure intensifies.

It will reach its maximum sinking speed.

Light will fade, almost entirely.

The water will grow cold, then colder - 6degC down to 5, then 4. And then the casket will keep sinking.

It has a long way to go.

The ocean floor at the burial site is deep - 1000m deep.

If the Eiffel Tower was set on the seabed there and two more were stacked atop it, the tip of the top tower would still sit 100m below the ocean surface.

On the ocean floor, brittle fish sit alongside amphipods and sea cucumbers and worms.

Shrimp and other crustaceans float along not far away.

At those depths, the pressure is so intense - 1472.6 pounds per square inch (psi), 100 times the pressure at sea level (14.7 psi) - the casket will never float back up to the surface, even if it and everything inside decomposes.

And decompose it will.

Animals living in the seabed will busily pick apart a wooden casket, digesting its component parts until there are none left.

But before that, the casket will sit at the bottom of the sea floor, nestled into a small mountain of objects that have been dumped into the sea over the years - old munitions from World War 2; dredged sand from the harbour; possibly a sunken ship or two.

The designated burial site is essentially an underwater rubbish tip, Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) compliance manager Matthew Dean says.

To dive down and take a look at the debris would be basically impossible - "you'd have to have very strong lungs if you did'', Mr Dean joked - the scuba diving record is just over 300m.

But if it were possible to dive down, Mr Dean expects you would discover a mess of "debris ... in various stages of decomposition'' - in a word, a deep-sea landfill.

"It does take a little bit of the romanticism out of the concept,'' Mr Dean admits.

The dumping site sits squarely in the middle of a busy ocean - rich fodder for the fishing industry, and a popular target for oil and gas exploration.

But, Mr Dean says, the designated sea burial site was chosen for a reason.

With the expired munitions sitting alongside everything else that has been disposed of there over the years, no-one in their right mind would go fishing or drilling in that particular spot - nor should they, he says.

"It wouldn't be in anyone's interest to put an oil rig over a munitions dump.''

And, besides, ocean burials are rare.

So rare, in fact, that the EPA has not overseen any since it took over responsibility for regulating them in October 2015.

Previously, sea burials could be authorised in a host of locations, not just the designated burial sites.

And the bureaucratic responsibility was scattered; shared between regional councils and Maritime NZ.

Now the EPA stands at the ready, waiting for someone to ask about burying a family member or friend in the shadowy depths of the ocean, 25 nautical miles off the Otago Harbour.

The form is available online, Mr Dean says.

It takes three working days to process.

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