For the last several days, I’ve been closely following the reports of the oil spill that occurred following the grounding of the Greek-managed carrier MS Oliva at Nightingale Island in the Tristan da Cunha territory. For those just reading about this devastating ecological disaster for the first time, this small group of islands, smack dab in the middle of the Southern Atlantic ocean, is home to most of the world’s population of Endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins, as well as millions of other seabirds, including the endangered Speckled petrel. For reasons not yet known, the Oliva was miles off course when it steamed full ahead into the island in the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 16th. Half of the ship’s crew was removed that day and the rest of the crew was rescued on the 17th. Oil first appeared in the water on the morning of Thursday, March 17th.
On Friday, March 18th, the ship broke in two in the rough seas, with more oil leaking from the damaged hull. By this point, the oil had surrounded Nightingale Island, where approximately 20,000 Northern Rockhopper penguins are just completing their annual molts. By the next morning, Saturday, March 19th, oil had been spotted up to eight miles offshore, and scores of heavily oiled penguins were coming ashore. By yesterday, Sunday, March 20th, the oil had hit Inaccessible Island, and hundreds more heavily oiled penguins were spotted by local conservation officials. This part of the world is home to approximately 200,000 Endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins. Because they are just finishing molting, the birds are already underweight (they fast while replacing their feathers during their 2-3 week molt), and they are now taking to the sea again to hunt for food.
Tragically, this small group of islands is incredibly remote, making a large-scale rescue effort extremely challenging. There is not even a landing strip for airplanes, so the only way to reach the islands is by ship. The closest landmass is South Africa, some 1,700 miles away (to the East). The next closest continent is South America, some 2,300 miles to the West. The voyage to Tristan da Cunha from South Africa takes 4-7 days, depending on the vessel and the weather. There will undoubtedly be tens of thousands of penguins, as well as thousands of other seabirds, oiled in this spill. Getting the necessary resources, as well as enough people to care for the birds out to these islands will prove to be a superhuman endeavor.
A bit of hopeful news - a salvage tug, the Smit Amandla, is due to arrive from Cape Town today, and Estelle van der Merwe, whom I worked under during the massive penguin rescue effort that took place following the Treasure oil spill in South Africa, is onboard. Under her strong leadership, nearly 40,000 African penguins were saved during the Treasure oil spill rescue. Estelle will serve as an advisor to the Tristan da Cunha conservation officials. But the rescue effort at Tristan will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge ever faced by even the most seasoned wildlife rescue professionals.
To follow the daily reports on this oil spill, check the websites listed below. I will also be posting daily updates on my Facebook page.