Northern rockhopper penguins whose feathers have become clotted with oil after a bulk carrier ran aground on Nightingale Island last week. Environmentalists warn that the endangered birds are vulnerable after the crash.

HENRI du PLESSIS

Staff Writer

ENVIRONMENTALISTS and salvors are negotiating with the South African and British governments to provide a ship to launch a rescue operation at Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha chain, which was hit by a bulk carrier last week.

The Oliva, a Greek-owned, Malta-registered bulk carrier laden with about 64 000 tons of soya beans and carrying 1 500 tons of heavy fuel oil, smashed into the volcanic island’s unprotected and inhospitable north-western shore at full speed on Wednesday.

The Oliva was on its way from Brazil to the Far East.

None of the ship’s 22 crew was injured when it ran aground.

On Saturday, the ship broke in two, leaving the after section, with the accommodation, capsized in the shallows among rocks, and the forward section, comprising most of the cargo holds, against a vertical cliff face that rises from the ocean.

Environmentalists in Cape Town have been scrambling to organise transport to Nightingale Island to launch an urgent clean-up of thousands of affected sea birds.

Shipping sources yesterday told the Cape Argus that 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 and Dassen islands, 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 South African 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.

After the ship ran aground last week, the Cape Town 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.

The Smit Amandla arrived at the island early today and its crew was expected to get to work immediately.

But diplomatic protocols mean it may take a little longer for the South African government to get involved in any salvage or clean-up operations on the remote island.

The government was ready to take action, but protocol required that it first receive a request from the British government for help because the Tristan da Cunha island group was British territory, said Zolile Nqayi, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Nqayi said his department had been contacted by a representative of the Oliva’s protection and indemnity club (a type of marine insurer).

The need now was for the British High Commissioner in South Africa to be alerted to the situation, Nqayi said.

Once the official British request was received, the South African government would be able to act, he said.

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