Tanker Spills Oil In Galapagos Islands Wildlife Reserve

SAN CRISTOBAL, Ecuador, January 21, 2001 (ENS) - An oil tanker has run aground on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos Islands and is spilling oil into the world famous wildlife refuge about 500 miles west of the coast of South America.

The tanker Jessica was carrying 240,000 gallons of oil from the southeastern Ecuadoran port city of Guayaquil to the port of Baquerizo on the easternmost island in the Galapagos group when she hit a sand bar on Wednesday.

The oil did not begin to spill from the capsized ship until Friday when one of its storage tanks broke open, releasing an undetermined amount of fuel into the bay.

sea lions

Peaceful marine life on the Galapagos has been disupted by an oil spill. (Two photos courtesy Rutahsa Adventures)
In a statement released late Friday, Galapagos National Park director Eliecer Cruz said the oil then "began to contaminate all the bay." "The damage is very serious," he said.

He warned that high tides expected this weekend could overturn the stranded tanker, causing a "tremendous contamination."

Cruz said the spill "is threatening colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas, birds like the blue-footed boobies, sea gulls, masked boobies and sea life, including sharks and lobsters."

Officials say that at least 20,000 gallons of fuel have been recovered from the bay where the spill occurred with equipment from the state oil company Petroecuador. Crews are pumping fuel out of the Jessica onto a barge, then taking it to port for transfer to fuel trucks.

Officials from the Ecuadoran Navy, the Environment Ministry, and the Galapagos National Park are on the scene. The Sea Shepherd vessel Sirinian is assisting with monitoring and wildlife rescue.

Floating barricades have been placed around the tanker in an effort to protect the islands' rare plants and animals. But chemical solvents often used to mop up spilled oil are not allowed in the ecologically sensitive waters off the coast of the Galapagos.


Marine iguana unique to the Galapagos Islands
In response to a request from the government of Ecuador to the U.S. State Department, the United States is sending oil spill control equipment, and pollution response experts from two agencies to the Galapagos Islands to assist the Ecuadorean oil spill response team.

Ten members of the U.S. Coast Guard's pollution response National Strike Force from Mobile, Alabama along with have been sent to the scene aboard a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft. The team reached the site of the spill today with specialized oil spill equipment such as high capacity pumps and inflatable oil containment barges.

The response team's main focus is to remove oil from the ship and provide advice on response and cleanup.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) oil spill scientific support coordinator is also with the response team to conduct spill trajectory forecasts and environmental impact assessments.

The direction of sea currents could expand the spill towards other areas, officials fear. Environmental patrols are working to determine whether th spill has affected the unique species that have made the Galapagos Islands renowned around the world.


Galapagos giant tortoises (Photo courtesy Galapagos Gallery)
Established in 1959, the park includes 13 major islands, six small islands, and 42 islets. Giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, waved albatrosses, and marine iguanas live on the islands that Charles Darwin described as a living laboratory of evolution.

The giant tortoises measure up to 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long by one meter high, and live longer than 100 years.

The local fishermen, whose livelihood is threatened by the oil spill, are blaming the government of Ecuador for delay in responding to the accident.