South Atlantic oil spill threatens more than the oiled penguins

30 03 2011

The isolated Tristan da Cunha archipelago

Many of you have likely already heard about the oil spill in the Tristan da Cunha islands in the south Atlantic. The remote archipelago is smack in the middle of the ocean, 1700 miles from the nearest port in South Africa. The spill occurred on March 16th when the M.S. Oliva, a cargo ship carrying soya beans from Brazil to Singapore, ran aground on Nightingale Island. The crew were rescued, but by Friday, the 18th, the ship’s hull had split, and oil was spilling into the waters around Nightingale. A salvage tug was deployed from Cape Town, South Africa the day the ship ran aground, and another ship was chartered to carry oil spill clean up personnel and equipment when it became clear that an environmental disaster was inevitable.

The islands are home to over half of the world’s threatened Northern Rockhopper Penguin population, and observers reported seeing between 10,000 and 20,000 oiled individuals on the island. Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is coordinating the spill response, and set up shop on Tristan da Cunha, the largest island in the archipelago of the same name. They began accepting oiled birds on March 24th and started stabilizing the birds, administering fluids, warming them, and preparing them for the rigorous washing process. Penguins are generally quite hardy and resilient and a good percentage of them survive to be released after having been oiled.

The swimming pool on Tristan was filled with non-cholrinated water and pressed into penguin service. (BBC photo)

As if the spill weren’t bad enough, the greater potential threat in this disaster may be harder to detect right away: if rats aboard the Oliva make it to the shores of Nightingale  (one of two islands in the archipelago that are currently rodent-free), they will threaten the very survival of the seabirds breeding there. Many seabirds evolved to raise their young on islands where eggs and young on the open ground would not be at risk from opportunistic rodents. When rats arrive on such an island, the birds are entirely without defense. Given the stakes, conservation officers stationed on the islands have been searching for any evidence of rat arrivals, and have set traps along the island’s shores to attempt to intercept any interlopers.

SEANET will be watching the situation on Tristan with interest and hope that the damages may be limited. We will keep you updated as the cleanup continues.

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One response

23 04 2011
Bob Hulse

Our ship, the NatGeo Explorer was on Nightingale Island 6 days after the wreck, heading north up the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Quite a few birds were oil soaked and I guess the good news from this event is that the Tristaners were responding with rat traps and poison in case some did come ashore. The oil is a big event but ephemeral compared to an infestation of rats.

If you would like some photos, give me an email address and I can send some along.

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