Mar 22

Hundreds of seabirds have been found covered in oil after a cargo vessel was wrecked on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic.

Conservationists are warning of an environmental disaster, as the island supports huge numbers of seabirds, including nearly half of the world’s population of the northern rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes moseleyi), which is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

There are more than 200,000 northern rockhopper penguins breeding on Nightingale Island.

Some 1,500 tonnes of heavy crude oil from the MS Olivia, which was shipping soya beans between Rio de Janeiro and Singapore, is leaking into the sea. According to the RSPB, oil now surrounds Nightingale Island and extends in a slick 8 miles offshore, threatening wildlife as well as an economically important rock lobster fishery. 

The consequences of this wreck could be potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands,” said Richard Cuthbert, an RSPB biologist. 

The Tristan da Cunha islands, especially Nightingale and adjacent Middle Island, hold millions of nesting seabirds as well as four out of every ten of the world population of the globally endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguin.”

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin colony

A colonial species, northern rockhopper penguins nest on cliffs and rocky gullies, usually near to freshwater.

Concerns surround not only the oil spill, but also the risk of any rats on the vessel colonising the mammal-free island, which would further endanger the nesting birds. 

The Tristan Conservation Department – which rapidly deployed nine people to the island – has already placed baited rodent traps on the shore where the bulk of the vessel has grounded. 

Trevor Glass, Tristan conservation officer, said: “The scene at Nightingale is dreadful as there is an oil slick encircling the island. The Tristan conservation team are doing all they can to clean up the penguins that are currently coming ashore. It is a disaster.”

Photo of great shearwater in flight over sea

Large numbers of great shearwaters also breed on Nightingale Island.

A salvage tug is currently en-route from Cape Town with an experienced crew and environmental experts, but it is not due to arrive at the island until Monday.

View ARKive for more species found on Tristan da Cunha. 

Read the BirdLife International press release. 

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author