On July 25, 2020, the bulk carrier vessel Wakashio, a cargo ship from Japan and registered in Panama, was in transit from Lianyungang, China to Tubarao, Brazil, with no cargo aboard and a crew of 20. While passing close to the French-controlled island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, the crew lost control and possibly communications, and the ship was grounded on a reef offshore of Pointe d’Esny and the small town of Mahebourg. This was just the start of what would become a major disaster for the tiny island nation.

The crew, all uninjured, were taken ashore and plans were made to remove the ship’s fuel, since she couldn’t be towed off the reef due to her size. Rough water and poor weather delayed those plans. According to the ship’s owner, approximately 1,000 metric tons of fuel were removed by pumping before the crew had to stand down, leaving an estimated 2,800 MT still aboard.

Then, on August 6, locals began to report oil. The Wakashio, still firmly aground and being battered by the capricious Indian ocean, was leaking oil into the waters within the reef. By August 10, an estimated 1,000 MT (~307,000 US gallons) of heavy oil had seeped from the self-dismantling ship. Aerial photos show long, tentacle-like tendrils of black fuel oil contaminating the shallow, teal water of Mauritius’s picturesque reef, painting the white sand beaches.

Mauritius, which is a small nation of less than 800 square miles, relies heavily on tourism for its economy. Already heavily hit by the pandemic crisis and its travel restrictions, this damage to the country’s reefs and beaches, which will be long-lasting, is a brutal blow. Environmental scientists worry that the amount of oil already spilled may be fatal to delicate reef ecosystems, killing off corals, mangrove forests, and sea life in a catastrophe the island has never faced before.

A small but growing army of volunteers and salvage crews are still working, still hoping to get the remaining oil contained before the Wakashio breaks up entirely and the floating oil begins to sink, where it will do its real damage.

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