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A large bulk carrier has run aground on an island in the Tristan da Cunha chain, about 1 550 nautical miles off the South African coast in the South Atlantic, sparking fears of a major environmental disaster.
Environmentalists in Cape Town are scrambling to organise transport to Nightingale Island to launch an urgent clean-up of thousands of affected sea birds in the area.
The Malta-registered Panamax-sized bulk carrier Oliva struck Nightingale Island on Wednesday, Cape Town marine sources said. The ship started breaking up on Saturday, spilling some of the 1 500 tons of heavy fuel oil into the sea off the environmentally pristine, uninhabited island.
The grounding was confirmed by Transport Malta, the Maltese shipping authority, which also confirmed it was investigating the incident.
None of the ship’s 22 crew was injured.
The island is the main habitat for more than half of the world’s population of Northern Rock Hopper Penguins, a species already listed as endangered, as well as numerous other sea birds.
The ship hit a lee shore, leaving it exposed to the harsh north-westerly weather.
Salvage sources said a great deal of fuel was still aboard the ship.
The Cape Town-based salvage tug Smit Amandla was released from coastal watch by the South African Maritime Safety Authority and set sail for the island on Thursday. It will try to figure out a way of removing fuel from the wreck.
However, the tug is expected to arrive at the island on Wednesday at the earliest.
Shipping sources said the grounding could develop into an environmental nightmare, making the penguin rescue effort after the 2000 sinking of the Treasure in Table Bay “look like a picnic”.
The Treasure spilled most of its 1 300 tons of heavy fuel oil into the bay. About 20 000 African penguins from Robben Island and Dassen Island, believed to have been about 40 percent of the world’s African penguin population, and large numbers of Cape cormorants and other sea birds were oiled.
The SA National Centre for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) launched an eight-week emergency clean-up operation and, with the help of around 12 000 volunteers, was able to rescue most of the oiled birds.
Now, Sanccob says it needs help getting people and equipment to Nightingale Island to start rescue operations.
“We have been trying to get help from the South African government, but so far we have not yet had any response,” said Sanccob chief executive Venessa Strauss.
“We urgently need to get people down there. The only way to get to the island is by ship and it will take about five days to get there.”
Strauss said she had been in contact with the Tristan da Cunha administration. The island chain is a British territory.
“There are some islanders available for rescue work and we sent out basic stabilisation equipment for a few birds with the Smit Amandla. At the time, however, the ship had not yet broken up and since then the threat has become so much worse.”
The Greek-registered Oliva, a 40 170 gross tonnage vessel built in 2009, ran headlong into the island, about 30 nautical miles from Tristan da Cunha, at full speed. It was on its way from Brazil to the Far East.
Some of the crew were able to make landfall on the island after abandoning ship, while others were picked up by a nearby passenger vessel.
Transport Malta said today: “The Merchant Shipping Directorate of Transport Malta has been informed that the ship sustained structural damage in way of a number of ballast tanks.
“The damage eventually progressed into a complete structural failure. Reports also indicate that further to yesterday’s sightings, no fresh traces of oil have been observed following the hull failure,” it said.
MV Oliva is reported to have been carrying about 65 000 metric tons of soya beans.
The managers of the vessel have engaged a salvage company. The Maltese authorities would seek international co-operation in the investigation.