MV Wakashio Crash site, Mauritius
Crash site of MV Wakashio

Ecological Disaster

The Japanese ship, the MV Wakashio left China on the 14th of July, headed for Brazil with four thousand tonnes of fuel aboard.

On the 23rd of July, the vessel entered Mauritian waters, cruising at 11 knots. The Mauritian Coast Guard warned the vessel that her course was set too close to the reefs of the South West of the island.

The MV Wakashio however hit the reef in the South East bow first, turned in the waves and ran aground the reef on her stern. This was on the 25th of July.

Carrying such a huge volume of oil, the residents of Mauritius have spent each day anxiously watching to see what will happen. There was no initial effort made to salvage her. Being so near to, and positioned so dangerously on the reef, the strong wind and waves have arguably made such efforts difficult to accomplish.

However, on the 7th of August, the very worst happened as the ship began leaking oil from cracks in its side. Officials say they did not see the cracks in the ship until then. One thousand tonnes of oil have been leaking out since, causing a major ecological disaster. Almost two weeks after running aground, its uncertain why the government didn’t act sooner.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of unprecedented environmental emergency in Mauritius, and has appealed for international help. Nagashiki Shipping and MV Wakashio’s operator, Mitsui OSK Lines, have taken responsibility for the incident and there is an ongoing police investigation in to negligence.

Mauritius oil leak
Local community transports booms to absorb the oil

“To protect the environment, we will do our utmost to recover the leaked oil, pump out the oil that remains in the ship, and remove the ship safely while co-ordinating with Mauritius.”.

Akihiko Ono, Executive Vice-President of Mitsui OSK Lines, said, “We apologise profusely and deeply for the great trouble we have caused.”

Ono has also promised that the company will “do everything in its power to resolve the issue.” The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also announced that it is sending a six-person disaster-relief team to Mauritius.

“We hope that this assistance will contribute to recovery of the environment of Mauritius and prevention of marine pollution,” the Ministry said.

French President Emmanual Macron tweeted that “When biodiversity is in peril, there is urgency to act,” and that “France is there. Alongside the people of Mauritius. You can count on our support dear Jugnauth.” So far, France has sent a military aircraft, a naval vessel and a specialist team from neighbouring French territory Reunion.

In a statement on the 10th of August, Nagashiki Shipping said that the primary focus is reducing the effects of the spill and protecting the environment: “The authorities have ordered two tankers, MT Elise, MT Tresta Star and tugs to assist with the removal of the fuel oil from MV Wakashio. A hose connection has been successfully established with MT Elise, which is safely alongside, and the transfer of fuel oil is under way. MT Tresta Star remains on standby at the site,”. A tow connection has been established between the tugs and MV Wakashio to help secure the vessel. Helicopters have also been sent to help transfer the oil removed from the site.

Mauritius heavily relies on tourism, which comprises around a third of its GDP. The beautiful beaches and pristine coral reefs that surround Mauritius are world renowned. Off the back of the devastating impact of the travel restrictions, international lockdown and border closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the oil spill is another huge set back for the country’s economy, which is already hurting.

Local Booms to stop the oil leak in Mauritius
Booms made by the local community containing man made and raw materials

There are still an estimated two thousand five hundred tonnes of oil on board and concerns that with more strong winds and high waves of between 5 and 6 metres, the ship might break in two. The vessel definitely appears to look likely to split around the wheel house, near the stern. If the vessel splits, this will present an even greater ecological disaster. 

When the vessel started leaking oil, it was the residents of Mauritius, nationals, expats, NGOs such as Eco-Sud and the local fishing and scuba diving communities that sprung in to action to try and contain the spill.

With minimal resources at their disposal, the main method of containment has been handmade booms or cordons filled with flotation devices such as plastic bottles, and filled with natural raw materials such as palm tree leaves, sugar cane leaves, human hair and fabric. Anything that will absorb the oil and prevent it from saturating the lagoon and coastal areas.

The solidarity and unity of the people of Mauritius has been inspiring and a fine example of community spirit, selflessness, strength and determination. A shining beacon of hope and faith. This is off the back of the country staving off the spread of coronavirus by working together tirelessly to make incredible personal and professional sacrifices

The impact so far on the surrounding area of Pointe D’Esny and Blue Bay has been devastating. Fanned by the wind and the currents, the oil slick has begun to make its way up the East coast of Mauritius.

The ship is close to the Point d’Esny Wetlands, the Ile aux Aigrettes Nature Reserve, the Blue Bay Marine Area, and the Mahebourg Fishing Reserves. Blue Bay is a National Marine Park and Wetland Site listed under the Ramsar Convention and renowned for its breath-taking coral gardens, including a thousand year old brain coral. Table corals, foliaceous corals, fire corals, stag horn and rose-shaped corals are some of the thirty eight identified species of corals. The fauna of this protected area is as beautiful as its flora, offering an incredibly biodiverse ecosystem. Seventy two different species of fish have been identified including butterflyfish, surgeonfish, pennant coralfish, fusiliers, cometfish, damselfish, parrotfish, rainbow wrasse, sergeant-majors, sea anemone and clownfish. Recently, turtles have also been seen returning to the area to breed since a lot of effort has gone in to the conservation of this area.

Never having faced a catastrophe of this nature, the Mauritian government is insufficiently equipped to handle the problem.

The government has most likely been unable to take any action because they do not have the financial reserves to enlist the help of international specialists, resources, machinery and materials including PPE. The local NGOs have been and continue to drive the relief effort and clean up operations, but their efforts can and will only go so far. The local fishermen are providing their boats to transport the handmade straw booms/cordons to prevent the oil slick from further decimating the coastal area and neighbouring mangroves.

This is an environmental tragedy and the situation is devastating for all the surrounding marine life, wildlife and coral reefs. There needs to be a higher, more official level of control and organisation to sustain the relief effort and clean up operation on a longer term, to ensure more permanent and effective results. 

Crystal Divers Mauritius PADI 5 Star IDC
Crystal Divers team support the local relief effort.

As a Mauritian National and dive centre owner, it is my plea to you to share Mauritius’s plight and the situation unfolding here. Please reach out to the wider world to highlight this issue. We’ve set up a Just Giving Page to help raise funds to support the NGOs and volunteers in the clean up effort. We would be so grateful for your support in helping our beautiful paradise island fight back.