On October 5, 2011, three short years ago, the MV Rena, a container ship owned by a Greek shipping company ran aground on the Astrolabe Reef, some twenty kilometers (12 miles) offshore from Mount Maunganui where we live, causing what has been called the worst oil spill disaster in New Zealand.
The MV Rena, a 774 foot long container ship in route to the Port of Tauranga, was carrying 1,368 containers along with 1,700 tonnes of heavy oil and 200 tonnes of diesel fuel. A tonne, also called a metric ton, is 1000 kilograms or 2,200 lbs.
At the time, the captain of the ship was attempting to make up time and had set a more direct course to Tauranga than was prudent, and at 2 AM in the morning the ship travelling at 17 knots struck the reef and became stuck on it.
Initially the possibility of removing the ship from the reef existed, but the situation worsened. Within a few days the ship was listing at 20 degrees and had cracked in two being held together only by internal structural elements.
A giant oil slick developed, and within 4 days after the incident had occurred, the oil slick was 3 miles in size and threatening the rich marine wildlife environment of the Bay of Plenty.
Oil began washing ashore on New Zealand beaches including Mount Maunganui’s pristine beach, and a 35 mile stretch of beach was closed to the public because of health concerns over the oil.
Immediate efforts were made to salvage containers from the ship to prevent them from falling into the sea and breaking apart, and to remove as much oil as possible from the ship.
Initially an oil dispersant was used to break up the spill. A dispersant is a chemical that works by separating particles of oil and preventing them from settling or clumping. Essentially this disperses the oil from the sea surface and transfers it to the larger volume of the sea itself allowing it to be more rapidly diluted. The use of the dispersant was inconclusive and it was stopped after one week’s time, and the sea itself was left to disperse the leaked oil. Oil breaks down over time and storms and heavy seas in particular help the process of dispersal and breakdown.
A number of ships were involved in removing the remaining oil from the ship and over time some 77% of the containers were recovered.
Workers and volunteers labored to remove the oil from the beaches and to rescue wildlife harmed by the oil.
On January 8, 2012, three months after the initial incident, the Rena still stuck on the reef broke in half and the stern section sunk below the water. Efforts continued to remove containers from the bow section.
In March, further storms caused more damage sinking what remained of the vessel.
The entire event received little international news coverage in part because it occurred on the day Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, died and during the time the Occupy Wall Street protests were going on.
A claim was made against the insurance carrier for the vessel. There was a backlash against the Filipino crew who were staying in Tauranga immediately after the incident and they fled. The captain and the navigator were charged and eventually sentenced to 7 months imprisonment, and served half that time before being released. Local Maori tribes demanded and received settlement money from the government for damages and for, I believe, lack of involvement in the entire process.
It is estimated that the oil spill caused 2000 bird deaths with 20,000 birds being affected through their ecosystem and food sources being contaminated. Oil penetrates into the feathers of birds and the fur of marine mammals. This reduces the insulating ability of the feathers or fur and allows the animal to be more vulnerable to temperature variations and also less buoyant in the water. Also when birds preen, they ingest oil coating their feathers causing liver and kidney damage and subsequent metabolic derangements. Some studies show that less than 1% of oil soaked birds survive.
Oil contaminated birds will preen almost continuously in an attempt to remove the oil, and subsequently will become dehydrated and weakened. Rescued birds are cleaned with detergent solutions, hydrated and fed and allowed to recover.
Among the animals rescued from the oil spill were 383 little blue penguins who were then transferred to a rescue facility. The little blue penguin, found in both New Zealand and Australia, is the smallest penguin species in the world with an average height of only 13 inches.
After being cleaned and allowed to rehabilitate, 95% of these were eventually released back into the sea.
A stone monument near our house marks the site of the final release of the little blue penguins at Mount Maunganui beach.
Watch this: Video of release of some of the penguins back into the ocean.
Image credits: Maritime New Zealand