St Helena Online

Tag: rockhopper penguins

Revealed: blunders that caused Tristan da Cunha wreck disaster

Last year’s shipwreck disaster on Tristan da Cunha was caused by a drowsy officer who thought Nightingale Island was a rain cloud, an investigation has revealed.

The chief mate of the MS Oliva failed to change course when Tristan’s sister island showed up on radar, and the ship ploughed on to rocks.

People on Tristan spent weeks trying to save the lives of rockhopper penguins that were plucked from rocks after the cargo ship broke up in heavy swell.

Last month the entire 260-strong community was awarded a medal by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

It took a week for salvage crews to make the 1,700-mile voyage across the South Atlantic to the wreck, while the captain and crew were sheltered in homes.

The 75,300-tonne Oliva was wrecked on uninhabited Nightingale in the early hours of 16 March 2011.

Now a report by the Marine Safety Investigation Unit in Malta, where the ship was registered, has revealed a succession of human failures.

The ship’s officers knew they would pass close to some islands on their voyage from South America to Singapore, but not when. They failed to follow their route properly on charts, relying mainly on a satellite navigation system.

Just after four in the morning, the ship passed only 3.25 nautical miles from Inaccessible Island – a World Heritage Site that was later polluted by escaped oil.

The second mate saw its radar echo but “assumed it was either rain clouds or an iceberg”, says the report.

Soon after 0500, the chief mate “noticed a large echo on the radar screen, very close ahead. He assumed it was a heavy storm cloud and thereafter, he felt the vessel’s impact of running aground.

“The vibration of the vessel running aground and the change in the main engine noise woke up most of the crew, including the master.”

The ship slid on the sea bottom as conditions worsened and at about 0300 the next day, a rock pierced one of the holds. The engine room flooded and an oil slick appeared.

The unnamed Greek captain and the Filippino crew were taken off by a trawler and boats from a cruise ship.

Nearly 48 hours after the collision, Oliva broke in two in heavy swells, spilling 1,500 tonnes of oil into the sea, and most of its cargo of soya beans.

The investigation report says the chief mate had been unable to sleep until five hours before he was due on night watch, because of a cold, and had taken medicine.

“He required two wake-up calls before he arrived on the bridge to take over his watch.

“The combination of the cold, medication, lack of sleep, the time of the day and reaction to the ship’s grounding suggested that the chief mate was probably not fit to stand a navigational watch.”

The report also says that bridge management systems were not followed. Charts were not marked with a “no go” area around the islands, and a plotting error meant that the ship’s projected route took it straight over the mile-wide Nightingale Island.

The RSPB has praised the Tristanians for a “phenomenal” response to the resulting ecological disaster.

The fishing vessel Edinburgh transported 3,718 penguins to Tristan da Cunha, where 80 islanders worked for three months to clean and feed the birds. Conservation workers arrived from South Africa to help, bringing medicines.

A works shed was transformed into a penguin hospital, and recovering birds took over the island’s swimming pool.

Chief islander Ian Lavarello said: “Many of us are descendants of shipwrecked sailors who settled on Tristan, so it was natural for us to shelter the rescued men from the Oliva and at the same time, turn to saving as many of the affected penguins as possible.”

But only 12 per cent of those taken to the main island survived to be released into the sea. It is thought most of Nightingale’s penguins had already left the island after breeding when the ship broke up.

Dr Ross Wanless of Birdlife South Africa, who called the outcome “an unmitigated disaster”, criticised insurers for delay in sending bird experts to join the clean-up.

Months after the incident, scientists found rotting soya beans had killed sea creatures and caused severe damage to the lobster fishery that provides islanders with most of their income.

Seventeen months after the incident, the Nightingale fishery remained closed and the quota at Inaccessible Island had been halved.

In September 2012, the ship’s owners agreed to pay compensation to the islanders.

Tristan shipwreck disaster report due ‘shortly’

The crew of the MS Oliva were rescued unharmed. All pictures: www.tristan.dc

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.

A lifeboat can be seen readied for launching. Click the pic for a larger image

“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.”

Close-up: men were covered in oil when the crew were taken off

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 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.

Nearly 4,000 oiled penguins were transported to Tristan

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.

Islanders and conservations cleaned the fed rescued penguins

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.

Tristan da Cunha secures ‘fair deal’ over shipwreck calamity
Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe

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

How photo-blogger told America about island oil disaster

MS Oliva goes aground. Click the pic for more images, courtesy of

Photographer Andrew Evans arrived on the world’s most remote inhabited island just days after the bulk carrier MS Oliva was shipwrecked, creating an environmental disaster.

The ship releasing an oil slick that was to kill hundreds of endangered rockhopper penguins – and for a few days, it went unreported in the world’s media.

Evans had travelled to Tristan da Cunha in his role as National Geographic’s ‘digital nomad’, intending to capture the islanders’ way of life. Instead, he found himself witnesses the islanders’ response to a calamity.

Now National Geographic has released a video of him talking about how he broke the story of the MS Oliva.

“It was devasting,” he says. “Nobody in the world knew about this. This was an island that was completely disconnected. It’s off the grid.

“The first thing I did was take as many pictures as I could. I created a YouTube video and published it immediately from the ship. I put it out on Twitter [an internet messaging website] and it got picked up by the blogosphere.

“National Geographic got it out there in the real press, and it went to the New York Times.”

The lesson, says Evans, is that anyone with a camera and a web connection has the power to share news with the world.

In fact, Tristan is not as disconnected as he suggests. The story was also being relayed beyond the island on Tristan’s own website, which is published from the UK.

And unlike Evans, a Belgian witness had video footage of the crew actually being rescued by personnel from a passing cruise ship. However, Kanaal van KristineHannon’s shots did not appear on YouTube for another 11 days.

And efforts were being made to get the story in the UK media – but the oil spill happened in the same week as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The BBC was told about the story several times, but took days to get round to covering it.

The Today programme ran a live interview on the crisis on 22 March 2011 – the day Evans arrived on Tristan (and released a video in which he made no mention of the disaster).

Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe

National Geographic Live: Andrew Evans on reporting the Tristan oil spill
BBC Today programme report – 22 March 2011
Andrew Evans arrives on Tristan da Cunha – 22 March 2012
Nightingale Oil Spill – Andrew Evans’s original video,  24 March 2012
YouTube: MS Oliva runs aground – Kristine Hannon crew rescue footage, 27 March 2012

The day Wayne picked up a penguin (not a chocolate one)

Two Gentoo penguins onj a grey pebble beach - actually Antarctica
Gentoo penguins: hitch-hiking's tricky when you haven't got a thumb (photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink on Flickr)

Even in the Falkland Islands, it seems, a penguin can be a slightly surreal sight. It’s not often, for instance, that they’re seen hitch-hiking.

Quite how a flightless sea bird ended up 30 kilometres inland is not explained in Catherine Lengyel’s article in The New York Times. Perhaps it was in training for the world’s most southerly marathon.

She tells how Wayne, her host at Port Howard Lodge, pointed the spot where he’d spotted the black-and-white stray. “We picked him up and put him in the back seat of the Land Rover. Drove him to the coast at Fox Bay.”

The story provides the opening anecdote in an engaging, intelligent article.

It was spotted by Lisa Watson, editor of Penguin News (“It’s not just news about penguins”). She shared the link on the Twitter messaging website, with the comment: “I’ll put money on it you won’t be able to help smiling at the first anecdote in this Falklands article.”

Read it here.

Gentoo penguin numbers on the Falklands have hit a record high, according to MercoPress news agency. The population is estimated to be 132,321 breeding pairs, the largest number since estimates began in 1933.

The Falkland Islands are thought to be home to more Gentoo penguins than anywhere else.

Rockhopper numbers have “become stable,” according to a census report by Falklands conservation officer Al Bayliss, but well below 1930s levels.


Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe


Gentoo penguins – BBC images and videos
Rockhopper penguins – BBC

Tristan penguin rescuers triumph – maybe

MS Oliva goes aground. Click the pic for more images, courtesy of

Efforts by the people of Tristan da Cunha to rescue birds in last year’s oil spill disaster appear to have been a great success, against enormous odds.

A count appears to show little impact on breeding among the island’s endangered rockhopper penguin colonies after the MS Oliva broke up on rocks.

But oil and cargo released into the South Atlantic from the ship have severely damaged the lobster fishery that provides islanders’ main source of income.

Tristanians rescue crew from MS Oliva. Click the pic for more images. Courtesy of

Tristanians had to rescue crew members of the MS Oliva when it hit rocks off neighbouring Nightinghale Island on March 16.

They then set up their own clean-up operation for wildlife while they waited more than a week for help to arrive from Cape Town, 1,700 miles away by sea.

The ship 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.

Now a report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says the breeding population of rockhopper penguins in the area has not suffered as much as anticipated.

But Dr Juliet Vickery, head of international research, says the figures should be treated with caution.

Venessa Strauss and Dereck Rogers washing oiled penguins. Picture courtesy of

Well over half of the world’s population of Northern Rockhopper penguins breed on the Tristan group of islands.

Approximately 154,000 of them bred on the islands in 2011, but estimates in the 1950s suggest there were ‘millions’ of birds, with two million pairs on Gough alone.

‘It’s a big relief that the initial results of the counts are better than we had anticipated,’ says Dr Vickery. ‘We should not, however, relax our watch. There is much we don’t know about this species.’

She says it is not known how well population trends can be worked out from counts in breeding colonies. There may be longer-term ‘sub-lethal’ effects on breeding.

‘It is vital that we continue to monitor the birds closely for several more years to establish the true impact of the oil spill.’

Makeshift penguin pens. Picture courtesy of

The oil spill has also caused concern for the important Rock Lobster fishery around Tristan – the mainstay of the island’s economy. The latest evidence shows that catches are way below normal and rotting soya has been spotted on the traps.

Divers found the wreck had broken up considerably over the Southern Hemisphere winter. The Nightingale fishery has closed on expert advice and the quota for the fishery at Inaccessible Island was reduced from 92 to 53 tonnes for 2011/12 season.

An RSPB emergency appeal raised almost £70,000, which will be used to support penguin monitoring, strengthen the islands’ biosecurity, and help Tristan control rats – which could spread to Nightinghale and kill chicks.

Katrine Herian. who works for the RSPB on Tristan, praised islanders for their work: ‘Something really needs to be said about the huge Tristanian efforts in response to this disaster.

‘Without them, this could have been a very different story. While the true impact of the spill won’t be known for some time yet, we can at least know that everything that could be done was done.’