A report on the cause of the shipwreck that sparked an environmental disaster for Tristan da Cunha is expected shortly, according to a senior official of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.
St Helena Online had received a complaint about secrecy surrounding the grounding of the MS Oliva on Nightingale Island, leading to a fuel spillage that killed hundreds of rockhopper penguins and damaged the Tristan fishery.
“We still don’t know why a modern, well-equipped Maltese-registered ship could run into Nightingale Island at 14 knots,” said the source.
In fact, the incident has been under investigation by the Maltese transport authorities since it happened in March 2011. It is now in the hands of Malta’s Marine Safety Investigation Unit, which was formed six months after the ship broke up.
Martin Longden, The FCO deputy director responsible for Britain’s South Atlantic territories, told this website he was expecting to receive a copy of the investigation report shortly.
He understood it would also be available to the public.
He said: “It’s important, in my view, that we understand exactly what caused the Oliva disaster so that we can best reduce the risks of any similar incident in the future.”
The MS Oliva broke up in rough weather, discharging 1,500 tonnes of bunker fuel into the sea. The resulting slick reached Tristan and Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site.
Tristanians set up their own clean-up operation for wildlife while they waited for help to arrive from Cape Town, 1,700 miles away by sea. They eventually created their own penguin “hospital” at the settlement on Tristan.
Three months on, only 381 of the original 3,718 birds had been successfully returned to the sea.
An article in the Cape Argus described the low survival rate as “an unmitigated disaster”, caused by a three-week delay in sending seabird experts to help the Tristanians.
The tristandc.com website said the efforts of islanders, with little outside help, was “one of the most remarkable wildlife rescue operations ever undertaken”.
Well over half of the world’s population of Northern Rockhopper penguins breed on the Tristan group of islands, returning to shore in August and laying eggs in September.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said that their recovery from the disaster must be monitored for several years, but the 2011 season was considered successful.
The Nightingale rock lobster fishery remains closed, 18 months after the incident.
Now Malta’s investigation unit is due to set out the circumstances behind the disaster. Its role also includes making safety recommendations for the future.
Its website says it is not a prosecuting body and does not have the legal mandate to apportion blame, or determine liabilities.
The 40,000-tonne bulk carrier, built in 2009, ran aground on 16 March 2011 at around 0510 local time.
All 22 crew members were uninjured, and safely taken off aboard boats from a cruise ship.
Damage to the ship’s ballast tanks led to it breaking up, releasing fuel and part of its cargo of 65,000 metric tonnes of soya beans.
It was feared the soya beans would damage the delicate ecology of the waters around Nightingale Island. Rotting soya beans have been found in lobster pots.
A compensation agreement has now been negotiated between the owners of the MS Oliva and the Tristan government, though details have not been revealed.
MS Oliva disaster – Tristan da Cunha website
Transport Malta investigates the grounding of the Maltese ship Oliva (27 March 2011)
Maritime Safety Investigation Unit, Malta