On August 26 a Turkish ship so poorly maintained that it had been banned from EU waters began to sink just off the southern tip of Madagascar, causing a large oil spill. Humpback whales, their blowholes blocked by the oil, have begun washing up on beaches.
Dispatch (S.Africa) the MS Gulser Ana, bound for India, was a few kilometres off Cape Sainte Marie. The 189 meter-long ship was carrying 39,000 tons of phosphates when it caught on fire. Dispatch quotes from L’Express de Madagascar:
. . . . vets were trying to save the beached whales, who were close to death after their blowholes had become blocked with diesel and oil.
The cause of the accident to the 189m-long, 30m-wide ship is still unclear. But a statement from Prime Minister’s Monja Roindefo’s office said the ship’s cargo comprised far great quantities of diesel and oil than initially thought.
The statement said the ship was carrying 500000 cubic metres of diesel and 700000 litres of motor oil, as well as an unspecified quantity of heavy fuel.
It was not clear how much fuel has already seeped into the water. The newspaper reported that around 400 cubic metres had leaked and that a stretch of the coastline had been blackened by the pollution.
This protected part of Madagascar’s coast is famous for its rich coral reefs, rare species of tortoise and the migrating humpback whales that pass by at this time of year en route to their breeding grounds off Reunion Island.
At Spotlight Madagascar, Sondra Fischer, a Peace Corps volunteer, and Sara LeHoullier, a grad student, blog about the oil spill, noting:
This is not the first time whales have had problems in Madagascar. In this photo, taken in June 2008, more than 100 whales are beached after getting caught in a bay near where Exxon Mobile was carrying out seismic surveys, but denies any fault for the whale disaster.On Aug. 4 2009 WWF reported that Exxon was also under fire for endangering Pacific grey whales in the vicinity of the Sakhalin I oil and gas project on northeast Sakhalin Island, in the Russian Far East. The Madagascar catastrophe of June 2008 involved melon-headed whales which washed up on a beach in northwest Madagascar. Blogger Harinjaka and the NGO Fanamby were among the first to report (fr) and publish photos (mg) of this ecological disaster according to GV's Lova Rakotomolala who discussed these reports.
Patrick, a university student in Madagascar who works part time as a tour guide, blogged about finding a humpback whale washed-up on a beach on August 24, 2009. On the same blog post, Patrick described what it is like to watch humpback whales playing:
After Foulpointe, Ste Marie [Jotman: location of oil spill] also is a very nice island and has a very interesting thing to discover. For example at the end of this month, in there, there will be one festival called Tsola be. It’s a new cultural event to promote the tourism sector. It going to be one unforgettable moment for you because you’ll discover the real Ste Marians Midôla in that time and also you will see by your own eyes the whales playing along its very beautiful beach. What happened in Mananara-Nord [the discovery of the dead whale] proves that (there are lots of ) whales around there and they are ready to give you a very nice show. Your dream will become true. . . .This very special event serves to let this world know that Madagascar is getting back into the normal life after the recent political crisis.The shipping disaster couldn't have happened at a worse time for the whales or the people of Madagascar who are trying to preserve their spectacular coastline as an eco-reserve.
What is to be done?
Poorly maintained ships like the MS Gulser Ana must be kept off the high seas. Some new regulations reflect an awareness of the risks ships pose to sea life. By 2011, many ships traveling in Antarctic waters will be required to burn Light Marine Oil. Regulating marine fuel not only protects fragile ecosystems, it is probably one of the most cost-effective measures we could take in the fight against climate change. That's because emissions from low grade fuel are a primary source of black carbon (soot) which is the second major contributor to global warming after CO2. In fact, scientists believe that the fastest means of slowing climate change is to reduce soot emissions -- a lot of which comes from ships.
Top photo: by Jotman, shows a wild humpback whale feeding on krill. Map: via Voyage of the Odyssey website shows the migratory route -- major breeding and feeding grounds -- of the Humpback Whales in the Indian Ocean. "The dashed line shows the suspected spring and and fall migration routes. The solid lines show main routes."
UPDATE 1 (correction): Whereas blogger Patrick refers to Sainte Marie Island (also known as Nosy Boraha), an island off the east coast of Madagascar’s Toamasina Province, the Turkish freighter MS Gulser Ana began to sink off Cape Sainte Marie which is the name for the southern most point of Madagascar, a desolate, windswept place with few human inhabitants. According to Ecosnap, "Sainte Marie Island is 60 km long and less than 10 km wide. The channel between Sainte-Marie island and mainland Madagascar is a hot spot for whale watching. Substantial groups of humpback whales migrate from the Antarctic to this idyllic breeding place." Both "Sainte Marie," though far apart, happen to be rich in wildlife and great places for whale watching.
UPDATE 2: Besides the breeding humpbacks, another wild animal seriously threatened by the oil spill is the tortoise. A parks website notes that "Cape Sainte Marie is a real heaven for the turtles: the reserve has one of the strongest densities of the world . . ." An environmental summit early in 2008 warned that tortoise of Madagascar are at risk on account of poaching and the trade in endangered species.
UPDATE 3: M&C reports that "State television on Thursday evening showed the first images of the affected stretch of coast around Cap Sainte Marie, Madagascar's southernmost point. . . . The television images showed blackened beaches, dead fish and the near-sunken ship." A scientist expressed concern that "The mammals could become disoriented by an oil slick and steer off course in which case the reproduction of the whales could be significantly disturbed.'
UPDATE 4: Here is the registration information (2006) for the Turkish flag vessel MV Gulser Ana. Here is a recent (Feb 2, 2009) photo of the vessel by traveling through the Panama Canal. Another photo of the ship shown at right.
UPDATE 5: In 2001 the Gulser Ana was detained on account of safety violations observed during an inspection on a visit to Belfast harbor.. The inspectors wrote in their report (pdf): "Fuel oil emergency quick closing devices not operational" and "Fire hoses not operationally ready." Shortly after, four crewmen were injured in an accident involving the lifeboat. At the time of the violation, the ship was apparently owned by T&R Shipping and Trading. Captain Bill Bennett who detained the vessel commented: "This is the third time that Gulser Ana has been detained in ten months. The deficiencies are serious and if this vessel had been allowed to sail there could have been serious implications for both the crew and the vessel." A photo published in the official UK report depicts the accident involving the lifeboat.
UPDATE 6: The Gulser Ana, a catamaran, and a whale: In Nov. 2008 the Royal Gazette reported that during stormy weather, the Gulser Ana rescued two crew members of a 42 foot catamaran near Bermuda. "Their vessel was damaged after colliding with what they thought was a whale and started taking on water." Here's a video of showing the rescue, some commentary here. Most commentators thought the video depicted something fishy, perhaps because the website where the video had first been posted did not mention the prior collision with the whale. Therefore, most viewers of the video assumed the Gulser Ana was deliberately trying to sink the catamaran! S/V Maitreya (a blog) posted a video depicting the third rescue attempt. Maitreya observes "You don't really get the scale of the thing until you see the crew run down the deck." True enough.
UPDATE 7: "Clean-up operations ... have started and damage to the environment should be limited, the ship's operator said in a statement received by AFP Saturday" An AFP report continued:
"Sea currents are carrying any fuel oil to the east and away from the Cap Sainte Marie Marine Reserve and the coral reef, which should avoid any long or medium term environmental damage to the area," (the statement by the Mardeniz Denizcilik company) said.
"Over-flights of the area have not shown any evidence of whales or other sea mammals in the area having been in any way affected," it added. . . .
The island relies heavily on tourism and is home to two percent of the globe's total biodiversity. The majority of its animal and plant species are found nowhere else on Earth.