A container ship ran aground on a coral reef off of New Zealand’s North Island (map, from bbcimg.co.uk) on Wednesday.
On Sunday the country’s prime minister John Key flew over the scene in a helicopter and said two inquiries were already under way to find out why the ship had collided with the Astrolabe Reef.
The Liberian-flagged ship, the MV Rena, is owned by Greece-based Costamare Inc. It is leaking oil and has created a 5-km slick. It is stranded 12 nautical miles off the coast.
With heavy swells and gale-force winds forecasted for the area from Monday, an all-out effort is under way to remove nearly 2,000 tonnes of oil remaining in the vessel.
According to officials since Wednesday 20-30 tonnes of oil have spilled into the Bay of Plenty, one of New Zealand’s top tourist destinations which is home to whales, dolphins, seals, penguins and a variety of birds.
“Serious questions” must be answered, said Mr Key.
“People know about the reef, and for it to plough into it for no particular reason – at night, in calm waters – tells you something terrible has gone wrong and we need to understand why,” he told Radio New Zealand.
The salvage operation is making good progress, said New Zealand’s oil spill response agency, Maritime New Zealand (MNZ). It added that “significant equipment” is at the scene : a naval supply ship, two in-shore patrol vessels and two helicopters.
MNZ said that experts are on board the Rena with specialist equipment in order to warn them if the ship is in danger of breaking up.
“The top priority is to first remove the oil, then lighten the vessel by removing the containers, and finally, move the ship off the reef,” the MNZ said.
When it crashed into the reef, the MV Rena was carrying 2,171 loaded containers, some containing pollutants including paint and grease.
The oil that has spilled in the water is being scooped up by two barges.
But the MNZ said people should see more oil in the water in the coming days and washing up on nearby beaches on Wednesday or Thursday.
“The weather is starting to change, and is forecast to deteriorate over the coming days, which will impact on both the salvage and oil recovery effort,” it warned.
With one end of the ship stuck on the reef and the other end floating free, the coming stormy weather could lead to its break-up, experts said.
“Once you increase the swell, the upsurge, the lift on the aft end of the ship will increase, and the chances of her separating start to rise,” explained Marine Risk Assessor John Riding.
The ship’s owners said they were “working tirelessly” on the response.
In a statement the firm said that “minimising any impact to New Zealand’s coastline is the absolute priority”.
“The current primary focus of the salvage operations is the safe transfer of the vessel’s fuel oil from her tanks.”
A one-kilometre exclusion zone has been established around the ship by MNZ, which warned that the fuel oil is toxic.
Two wildlife rescue centres have been established by the department of conservation. In the meantime teams are scouring the beaches and islands of the Bay of Plenty, searching for oil-covered animals and birds.
Eight oiled birds, including little blue penguins, have been found and taken to a wildlife facility in Te Maunga, said the maritime authorities.
“From tip to toe, they are covered in black sticky gunk, matting up all their feathers right down to the skin,” said Brett Gartrell of New Zealand’s Wildlife Health Centre. “They have ingested it and started to get anaemic, which is part of the toxic effect of the oil.”
The accident happened in the middle of the breeding season for birds, a “disastrous” timing, said the animal welfare group Forest and Bird.