The Tristan da Cunha island group represents the second largest concentration of sea birds in the world. More than 65 percent of the world's endangered Northern Rockhopper penguin population is found here. Nightingale Island holds more than 100,000 pairs of Northern Rockhopper penguins, 20,000 pairs of albatrosses including the yellow nose albatross, and 2,000,000 pairs of Broadbill prions. The island is also home to the highly-endangered Tristan Bunting. Only 50 pairs remain in the world, all of which are found on Nightingale Island.

On March 16, 2011 at 430am, the 75,300 ton Maltese freighter Oliva, en route from Santos, Brazil to China with a cargo of soybeans ran aground onto the rocks at Nightingale Island's northwestern corner. Less than 12 hours later, Oliva broke apart on the rocks and spilling more than 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil around Nightingale Island, resulting in the oiling of thousands of endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins.

A desperate rescue and rehabilitation effort followed, led by SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). However, the extreme remoteness of Tristan da Cunha – 1,500 miles from Cape Town South Africa with no airport or landing strip -- proved to be an insurmountable challenge.

An investigation report by the Maltese government released in late 2012 revealed the series of errors and procedure violations that led to the disaster. Global shipping has tripled since the 1970s and thousands of cargo ships like the Oliva traverse waters in close proximity to critically important habitat for many species. Cargo ships — bulk carriers, container ships and tankers — have a poor safety record and disasters like the Oliva as well as the Rena (New Zealand 2011), Treasure (South Africa 2000) and Selendang Ayu (Alaska, USA 2004), among many others have demonstrated that ordinary bulk carriers can cause serious environmental harm, especially in remote areas where response time and capacity are seriously limited.

The Oliva incident has shed light on the unique challenges faced by resource managers in remote areas, especially as marine transportation continues to grow with increasing coverage of the globe. Climate change is now allowing marine transportation corridors to expand to areas adjacent to previously inaccessible, remote, wildlife-rich areas where there is limited capacity to respond during an oil spill emergency, making the lessons learned in Tristan da Cunha especially relevant.

The Tristan da Cunha island group is a remote archipelago of volcanic islands in the South Atlantic Ocean and is considered the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, lying 2,816 kilometers (1,750 mi) from the nearest land, South Africa, and 3,360 kilometers (2,088 mi) from South America (Wikipedia contributors, 2014; Figure 1). The archipelago includes the main island of Tristan da Cunha, along with the smaller, uninhabited Nightingale Islands and the wildlife reserves of Inaccessible and Gough Islands (Figure 2).

Figure 1.

Position of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic (Adapted from Google Maps)

Figure 1.

Position of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic (Adapted from Google Maps)

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Figure 2.

Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island and Nightingale Island (Adapted from Government of Tristan da Cunha)

Figure 2.

Tristan da Cunha, Inaccessible Island and Nightingale Island (Adapted from Government of Tristan da Cunha)

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Tristan da Cunha is part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Tristan has a permanent population of 275 as of 2009 (BBC News, 2009).

The Tristan da Cunha island group represents the second largest concentration of sea birds in the world. More than 65 percent of the world's endangered Northern Rockhopper penguin population is found in the archipelago. Nightingale Island holds more than 100,000 pairs of Northern Rockhopper penguins, 20,000 pairs of albatrosses including the yellow nose albatross, and 2,000,000 pairs of Broadbill prions. The island is also home to the highly-endangered Tristan Bunting. Only 50 pairs remain in the world, all of which are found on Nightingale Island. The island has been identified as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International (BirdLife International, 2012).

The Accident and Response

On March 16, 2011 at 430am, a 738-foot, 75,300 ton Maltese-flagged bulk carrier, Oliva, ran aground onto the rocks at Nightingale Island's northwestern corner. The Oliva (Call Sign 9HA2075, IMO Number 9413705) was a relatively new ship, manufactured in China in 2009 and was on route from Santos, Brazil to China with a cargo of 65 metric tons of soybeans.

Twelve of the crew were rescued by the F/V Edinburgh. The remaining ten crew members were rescued by the expedition team of the M/V Prince Albert II. Several hours later, the Oliva broke apart on the rocks and spilling more than 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil around Nightingale Island, resulting in the oiling of an estimated 20,000 endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins.

Figure 3.

MS Oliva after breaking apart at Nightingale Island (Photo: David E Guggenheim)

Figure 3.

MS Oliva after breaking apart at Nightingale Island (Photo: David E Guggenheim)

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The extreme remoteness that has for centuries helped protect the wildlife of these islands suddenly became its worst challenge. With no airport or landing strip, the nearest help was a 5-7 day steam across the south Atlantic's rough seas to Cape Town.

The Tristan da Cunha Department of Conservation found itself dealing simultaneously addressing two separate impacts from the shipwreck: Oil impacts to wildlife and the potential of invasion by rodents. Fortunately, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had completed a preliminary operational plan for the eradication of rodents in 2007 (Brown 2007) and this plan was put into action immediately. Heavy weather and rugged conditions, along with a staff of only six made implementation of the plan extremely difficult, however. Fortunately, the teams found no evidence of rodent invasion.

Dealing with the oil spill was far more difficult. The oil spill surrounded Nightingale Island and later spread to Inaccessible Island, creating an enormous area that could not be adequately covered by the limited staff.

Tristan da Cunha had no trained oil spill response personnel or any infrastructure or equipment for dealing with an oil spill. Such equipment had to be transported from South Africa. Nor did Tristan da Cunha have a rehabilitation facility for oiled birds and other wildlife.

The impact of the spill was exacerbated not only by the location of the spill at such an extraordinary concentration of endangered Northern Rockhopper penguins, but also by the timing, occurring during molting season. Penguins spend most of their life at sea, coming ashore only to nest and molt. Tens of thousands of penguins were ashore as their old feathers molted and their new feathers replaced them. While they molt, penguins cannot enter the water without the thermal protection of their feathers. As they wait ashore, unable to feed, they are in a physiologically weakened state. As they entered the water, they immediately became coated with oil.

The community on Tristan da Cunha pulled together to help the penguins. They converted the community swimming pool and storage shed into rehabilitation centers (Figure 4), and relocated nearly 4,000 oiled penguins to Tristan da Cunha for rehabilitation, a feat made exceedingly difficult by gale-force winds and the area's notoriously high swell. They sent fishermen out into the treacherous seas to catch food for the birds. What they couldn't catch they found in their freezers, donating their personal supplies of frozen fish meant to feed their families.

Figure 4.

Makeshift penguin rehabilitation center in a storage shed on Tristan da Cunha (Courtesy of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, SANCCOB)

Figure 4.

Makeshift penguin rehabilitation center in a storage shed on Tristan da Cunha (Courtesy of the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, SANCCOB)

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During the M/V Prince Albert II's long steam to Cape Town, the expedition team frantically dispatched a barrage of emails seeking help. Groups around the world responded. SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) based in Cape Town, quickly mobilized and sent teams to the island to help in the penguin rehabilitation. However, SANCCOB's rescue teams were delayed both by a long sea journey and delays in receiving visas.

Despite the dedicated efforts of many, only 10-12 percent of the rescued penguins survived. Thousands died. To make matters worse, Northern Rockhopper penguins, despite their remote home, have declined nearly 90 percent since the 1950s and are classified as an endangered species. Their decline is primarily attributed to climate change and overfishing. It remains too early to assess the long-term impact of the Oliva disaster, but some recent surveys show a further dramatic decline in the Northern Rockhopper population (Tristan da Cunha Department of Conservation, 2013).

Causes of the Accident: Investigation Report

While it seems inconceivable that a modern ship barely two years old could run at full speed headlong into the most remote inhabited island group in the world, an investigation report released by the Maltese government in 2012 reveals the underlying causes (Marine Safety Investigation Unit. Malta Transport Centre, 2012).

Oliva was in compliance with regulations even though it was not equipped with an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), a computer-based navigation system that electronically overlays the ship's position onto a nautical chart and allows the course of the ship to be plotted and monitored electronically.

Instead, the Oliva crew relied on plotting course and position by hand on paper charts, and the investigation revealed that the vessel did not have the correct large-scale chart covering the Tristan Islands. Instead, they plotted their course on a small-scale chart that covered much of the South Atlantic, a dangerous practice.

To make matters worse, the second mate made an error in plotting one of the waypoints for the ship's course. While it appeared the Oliva would clear the islands by 10 nautical miles, the course in fact put the ship on its collision course.

Although the bridge team was aware that they would be passing close to some islands, they were not aware as to when it would take place and potential hazards were not marked on the chart.

Just after 4 AM on March 16th, the second mate noticed a large echo on the radar screen but he failed to identify or investigate it as a possible land mass. Nor did the second mate tell the first mate about the echo when the first mate took over the watch 30 minutes later. The chief mate noticed the echoes but dismissed them as rain clouds.

The investigation also revealed that the chief mate was not feeling well the prior evening and had taken an unknown medication. He required two wake-up calls that morning.

Ultimately, a series of human errors, and a breakdown in both procedure and communication led to Oliva's demise.

Growing international commerce has created trade routes that increasingly crisscross the world, covering virtually the entire ocean's surface. Areas previously protected by their remoteness now face more frequent and proximate ship traffic. Further, melting ice in the Arctic is opening access to new trade routes in previously inaccessible waters.

Figure 5.

International maritime trade routes are continuing to expand into more and more remote areas of the globe (Source: Wikipedia contributors 2, 2014)

Figure 5.

International maritime trade routes are continuing to expand into more and more remote areas of the globe (Source: Wikipedia contributors 2, 2014)

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Since 1970, the amount of material shipped by sea has more than tripled and represents 80 percent of world trade. Over the last decade nearly 25,000 large tankers, bulk carriers and container ships roamed the seas each year, along with more than 18,000 smaller cargo vessels.

Over that period, an average of 28 of the larger vessels was lost each year along with 70 smaller cargo vessels. Although their safety record had steadily improved over past decades, recent statistics show accident rates on the rise. Data show that the majority of accidents are associated with older vessels, general cargo carriers (especially bulk carriers) and a set of consistently poor-performing flags (Butt et al., 2012).

In 2000, a bulk carrier, the Treasure, with a load of iron ore, sank near Cape Town, South Africa, releasing more than 400,000 gallons of heavy marine oil directly into the waters around the major breeding colonies for the African Penguin, affecting more than 40% of the world population. SANCCOB mounted what is still considered the largest animal rescue in history, rehabilitating more than 40,000 birds.

The Exxon Valdez is well-known as the largest maritime oil spill in Alaskan history. Less well-known is the second largest: The Selendang Ayu. In 2004, while enroute from Seattle to China, the Malaysian ship's engine failed during a fierce Bering Sea storm. Helplessly adrift, it grounded off the Aleutian Islands and broke in half. Six crewmen were lost. The ship spilled its cargo and more than 335,000 gallons of heavy oil into the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, killing thousands of seabirds. Like the Oliva, the Selendang Ayu was also carrying soy beans.

In 2011, just 7 months after the Oliva disaster, the container ship Rena ran aground on New Zealand's Astrolabe Reef and later split in half, releasing thousands of gallons of heavy marine oil, killing thousands of seabirds including the Little Penguin. Fortunately, teams were able to rescue and rehabilitate many of these tiny penguins.

The Maltese investigation report makes numerous recommendations regarding improving communication and review procedures aboard ship. While noting the absence of an ECDIS system aboard Oliva, the report does not go so far as to recommend changes in maritime rules requiring ECDIS aboard bulk carriers in this class. Such a policy change may well be warranted, however, as another layer of defense against navigation and procedural mistakes.

In addition, increasing the minimum allowable passing distance to remote locations harboring endangered wildlife should be considered as another measure of protection against groundings.

For thousands of years, remoteness from human activity has served to protect many populations of wildlife around the world. As trade routes expand to cover more and more of the world, remoteness alone may be inadequate to ensure ongoing protection. The disaster at Nightingale vividly illustrates this and, equally important, the unique challenges faces by resource managers in remote locations. During a crisis where time is of the essence and the need for specialized expertise and equipment critical, responders at Nightingale had neither. The lessons from this disaster highlight the critical needs of resource managers in remote locations, including:

  • specialized response training – including wildlife rehabilitation – for oil spills and other disasters.

  • emergency response plans – such as the aforementioned rodent eradication plan – that prepare remote resource managers with clear instruction and self-sufficiency

  • a strong communications network with offsite responders and professionals that can be rapidly and easily activated in the event of an emergency

  • a strong professional network, including remote resource managers from other locations, with whom the latest expertise can be shared and which can serve as part of the communications network

  • on-site emergency response equipment and/or a plan for rapid delivery of such equipment

  • on-site wildlife rehabilitation center(s) that can be activated within hours of an emergency

  • improved multi-year biological monitoring programs to provide robust assessment of impact and recovery of wildlife populations

The disaster at Nightingale demonstrated that the fuel supply for an ordinary bulk carrier can prove as disastrous as a larger spill, such as that from an oil tanker, when a spill occurs at a location that is especially remote and ecologically sensitive. Resource managers in such locations therefore have a daunting responsibility, one that they must not face alone. Strong collaborative international alliances are a key part of the solution.

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