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Oil-soaked rockhopper penguins on Nightingale Island, South Atlantic (Andrew Evans/National Geographic)

Nightingale Island Oil Spill

UPDATE: Watch my recent video from Nightingale Island.

Ecological disaster is not the story I wanted to send from this place, but it’s the one that is happening here right now.

I sailed to the Tristan Da Cunha island group because I was following a lifelong dream. The remotest set of inhabited islands in the world promised serenity, calm and safety from the ills and pollution that plague other parts of the world. Alas, even those distant problems found their way to these pristine shores in the South Atlantic.

A week ago today, (March 16), the MV Oliva (Valetta) crashed on the rocks of Nightingale Island, spilling its cargo of soybeans and some 800 tons of fuel oil onto the coast. The ship was crossing the Atlantic from Brazil to Singapore when for reasons still unknown, it hit the island’s coast at a speed of 14 knots.

The captain and all crew escaped the vessel, but by last Saturday the ship had begun to break up in the heavy surf. The oil slick had spread around the island and then out to sea in the direction of Inaccessible Island.

Our ship, the MV National Geographic Explorer arrived at Tristan Da Cunha yesterday and sailed to Nightingale Island this morning, as intended on our original itinerary with Lindblad Expeditions. Instead of mere bird watching, we were met with the disturbing sight of penguins and seals coated in sticky black oil.

Nightingale Island is home to some 20,000 of the endangered sub-species of Northern Rockhopper Penguin. Sadly, these are the birds that were hit the hardest—thousands are expected to die from the effects of the oil spill. While this spill is relatively minor in comparison to so many in the world today, it represents a major calamity for the fragile birdlife on pristine Nightingale Island and a heavy blow to the small group of islanders of nearby Tristan da Cunha.

Today, I watched as 750 oil-soaked penguins were collected off Nightingale Island and removed to nearby Tristan da Cunha where they will be cleaned with detergent and hot water. I held a dead, oil-stained penguin in my hands, it’s tiny body showing the stress of the spill but also the season itself.

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Dead, oil-stained Northern Rockhopp Penguin on Nightingale Island, South Atlantic (Andrew Evans/National Geographic)

The oil spill occurred at the tail end of the rockhoppers’ molting season, worsening the natural struggle of the skinny penguins to return to the sea and find enough fish to survive. In order to prevent the penguins from returning to the sea, large pens have been set up on Nightingale Island.

Today I watched as oil-stained penguins preened the oil from their feathers, which causes them to ingest large amounts of petroleum and will kill them if they are not treated. Oil-soaked fur seal pups also hid among the rocks and tussock grass of the islands, leaving oil stains on the ground around them.

A crisis response team had arrived by tugboat from South Africa—a four-day journey by sea. Commercial divers were on the scene to help dismantle the shipwreck and attempt to prevent further fuel from spilling out into the sea.

Another fear is the introduction of rats from the ship to the island, which could decimate the local bird population, including several endemics to the Tristan Island group. Three different types of rat traps had been laid on the island, and according to Tristan’s conservation officer Trevor Glass, no rats have been seen or trapped so far.

I took these images this morning while walking around Nightingale Island (and there are many more to follow). It was a painful and disturbing scene. My only consolation is that the people of Tristan take their birds very seriously and the entire island is contributing to the rescue efforts.