Exactly two decades ago today on the morning of June 23, 2000, a bulk ore carrier called the MV Treasure was transporting oil from China to Brazil when it sank between Dassen and Robben islands. The sinking caused a massive oil spill which threatened to wipe out to the African penguin population and resulted in the largest animal rescue effort of all time.

The MV Treasure was transporting 1 344 tonnes of heavy fuel oil, 56 tonnes of marine diesel and 64 tonnes of lube oil. According to UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh, about 400 toxic tons of bunker oil was released into the ocean, in an area that hosts the world’s third-largest African penguin colony.

At the time, the African penguin’s species was already in jeopardy. By the year 2000, only 100 000 African penguins existed.

By the next morning [June 24], the oil had moved towards Robben Island.

“Oil moved towards Robben Island, where booms were attached to the end of the breakwater at Murrays Bay Harbour, and deployed in a northerly direction, in an attempt to keep oil from reaching that portion of the island’s coastline used by most penguins for accessing the breeding area,” a research paper by the University of Cape Town reads.

“The booms parted on the night of June 24, and oil came ashore between the breakwater and the northern point of the island. This meant that almost all penguins arriving at or leaving the island would become oiled. Additionally, oil covered large portions of the foraging grounds of penguins at Robben Island.”

The oil moved toward Dassen Island on June 28, affecting areas such as Whale Bay, Lime Kiln Bay, Boom Point and Waterloo Bay.

“Prevailing currents continued to move the oil north, leading to concern that seabird colonies at islands farther north, including Vondeling Island and islands in West Coast National Park, would also be impacted. By July 1, no oil was observed north of Dassen Island, but large slicks remained between Dassen and Robben islands and south of Robben Island and continued to threaten penguins until July 16,” the research continues.

Source: Penguin Lady

African penguin colonies were deeply affected by the oil spill, as well as other bird species such as the Bank Cormorant, Cape Cormorant, Crowned Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Hartlaub’s Gulls and Swift Terns.

“The plumage of seabirds is affected by oil. Feathers become clumped, leading to a breakdown in their insulative properties. As a result, birds become hypothermic and are forced to leave cold waters. They dehydrate, mobilise stored energy reserves and may lose up to 13% of their body mass within a week,” the research continues.

“Unless rescued, they will eventually starve. Oil ingested by preening can cause ulceration of the mouth, oesophagus and stomach, and in severe cases can lead to substantial blood loss. Oil absorbed into the system can cause red blood cells to rupture, leading to anaemia.”

Birds covered in oil from the MV Treasure oil spill (Source: Bird Rescue International)

Standard practice during oil spills is to catch and treat oiled birds as soon as possible. The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) launched a 12-week long rescue mission. Along with 45 000 volunteers supervised by 130 professionals, they cleaned and fed 20 000 penguins. Over 7500 litres of detergent was used to wash the oil off the penguins.

“Penguins were caught along the shoreline at Robben Island by catching teams, that comprised up to 14 people. Up to 10 members attempted to isolate groups of penguins from the sea,” the research paper reads. “At Dassen Island, the initial effort was directed at collecting oiled penguins, but once oil approached the island attempts were also made to prevent clean birds from leaving for sea. From June 27 to July 1, the wall that circles the interior of the island was repaired to prevent penguins that were nesting within the wall from leaving for sea.”

A total of about 19 000 oiled African Penguins were collected, of which 14 825 were caught at Robben Island, 3516 at Dassen Island and about 500 at other localities. Oiled birds were caught as far north as St Helena Bay. Most of the oiled penguins were in adult plumage although some immature birds were also affected. At Dassen Island, 2744 of those oiled were adults and 772 were immature birds.

Unfortunately, many penguine died in the process.

“By August 18, 2000, about 1900 penguins (other than chicks) had died after being caught. These included 213 unoiled birds that died during trucking to Cape Recife, 28 that were later found dead at Cape Recife, and 800 oiled birds in poor condition that were euthanased at Salt River because it was not possible to provide them with sufficient care,” the paper says.

“Some 3350 penguin chicks were collected for artificial rearing, 707 from Dassen Island and the remainder from Robben Island. Of these, 319 were euthanased and a further 48 had died by 18 August 2000. A few chicks not removed from Robben Island may have been reared by adults that remained there, and a much larger number at Dassen Island. However, it is likely that about 3000 chicks died at Robben Island and 1000 at Dassen Island.”

Many different methods were employed in the cleanup effort following the oil spill, two of which included workers loading kelp covered in oil into trucks and also vacuuming up pools of oil. Booms were also used to keep oil from entering the Cape Town harbour.

Penguins free from oil after being cleaned up (Source: Penguin Lady)

Local company  Bio-Matrix was also contracted to help the cleanup effort and used a product of the same name that soaks up oil. Bio-Matrix works by soaking up the soil without absorbing water, and also breaks down and digests oil.

Unfortunately, the African penguin population still continues to drop. There are about 20 000 breeding pairs left in the world.

Picture: Bird Rescue International

Article written by

Lucinda Dordley

Lucinda is a hard news writer who occasionally dabbles in lifestyle writing, and recent journalism graduate. She is a proud intersectional feminist, and is passionate about actively creating a world which is free of discrimination and inequality.