Satellite Imagery Captures Dramatic Homemade Efforts To Slow Mauritius Oil Spill


This story will be updated with the latest satellite imagery as it becomes available.

The Indian Ocean island of Mauritius is in the midst of grappling with an ecological disaster following the grounding of Japanese freighter MV Wakashio, on the pristine reefs of Mauritius next to one of its most protected atolls. This protected coral atoll, Ile aux Aigrettes, contains species not found anywhere else on the island or in the world.

Already the oil spill has started to surround this atoll, the large fringing reef (one of Mauritius’ best preserved having survived waves of coral bleaching impacting other parts of the Indian Ocean), and is drifting simultaneously toward the historic Port City of Mahebourg, famous for its naval Napoleonic battles, the National Marine Park of Blue Bay and North toward other protected coral atolls.

This is the worst oil spill disaster to face the island. Local Authorities did not have sufficiently long oil booms available in the country to surround the vessel or contain the leaking oil. The vessel was 259m long and 50m wide (a perimeter of 618m).

Whilst questions are being asked why oil booms could not have been flown in from other countries as part of an emergency response whilst the vessel spent 13 days on the reef, a massive voluntary effort was mobilized over social media and saw thousands of volunteers come out to stem the flow of the oil, in spite of the health risks to themselves with the heavy smell of oil in the air.

Since the first crack appeared in the hull of the vessel on Thursday 6 August, islanders from across the country met in local towns and supermarket plazas to make home made oil booms.

Just as many parts of the world had to rapidly learn how to make homemade masks in response to Covid-19, islanders in Mauritius were able to review online how other countries had managed oil spills, adapt these to the local conditions where there was an abundance of dry sugar cane leaves, and exchanged social media messages on the best design for a ‘Made in Mauritius’ oil boom. These booms were sewn together with nylon, items of clothing, and stuffed with dried sugar cane grass and even human hair.

A smaller number of volunteers had also been working with local environmental NGOs to evacuate endangered species to safer parts of the island, until the full extent of the damage on Ile Aux Aigrettes and surrounding areas can be assessed.

When the story is finally told on MV Wakashio, it will be as much about the courage, innovation and solidarity of the thousands of volunteers as it is about the worst oil spill in Mauritius’ history. In times of Covid-19, such hope is important.

These efforts, as well as the dramatic salvage operation, could be seen from space and was captured by satellites overhead. Here are some of the most iconic satellite images since the grounding of the vessels.

1st August 2020: Satellites show vessel breached on reef before starting to leak oil

Satellites capture MV Wakashio after being beached on the reefs of Mauritius for 7 days, and 6 days prior to when it started leaking heavy oil.

29th July 2020: Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is a type of satellite sensor that can see through clouds and the night sky. By reflecting off hard surfaces beneath, it is easily able to identify the presence of vessels, and is often used to detect illegal fishing activity where fishing transponders are switched off.

These images from Finland-based satellite company, Iceye, and with analysis conduced by Ursa Space Systems, show the MV Wakshio on the coral reefs and then the eventual extent of the oil slick.

On 29 July 2020, the hull of the MV Wakashio can easily be seen on the reefs of Mauritius, showing up in bright white. SAR is a critical asset for countries to help govern their national waters, and is used to quickly identify suspicious vessels or vessels not in the positions they should be if they have their transponders switched off.

6th August 2020: first day of major oil leakage

SAR is also able to identify the extent of the oil spill. Analysis from Ursa Space Systems using Iceye satellites show that on Thursday 6 August 2020, the vessel started to leak heavy oil.

The slick can be seen surrounding the circular Ile aux Aigrettes atoll and heading into the historic Port City of Mahebourg, highlighted in orange in the SAR satellite animation below. Based on calculations by Iceye, the spill on 6 August was estimated at 3.3 square kilometers (1.3 square miles).

7th August 2020: ship sinking and oozing oil

According to news reports, the ship was carrying 3,894 metric tons of low sulfur fuel oil, 207 metric tons of diesel, and 90 metric tons of lubricant oil. A day after oil began leaking, the extent of the spill can be seen from space, using high definition satellite imagery.

The extent and spread of the black oil slick within the coral lagoon and around Ile aux Aigrettes can be clearly seen from space.

8th August 2020: oil continues to leak from the vessel

Using a different high definition satellite (panchromatic, so only displaying in black and white), the resulting oil slick can be seen in black against the grey background of the reef.

In this wide imagery, the extent of the slick can be seen around the protected Ile aux Aigrettes islands and heading toward the historic Port City of Mahebourg.

Salvage efforts

Satellites can also capture the vessels involved in the salvage operation as well as the position and effectiveness of the homemade oil booms.

Oil containment booms have been set up in multiple locations to try contain the slick.

The homemade oil booms around Ile aux Aigrettes, supported by tourist boats, are able to capture some of the oil from heading along the coast, and can be seen from space.

9th August 2020: ongoing efforts with oil protection booms

Oil protection booms had been deployed in several locations to prevent the spill from spreading around the affected area. In these images, the protection booms around Blue Bay Marine Park can be seen on 9 August 2020, as the MV Wakashio continues to leak oil. Blue Bay Marine Park is a marine habitat with a unique coral reef ecosystem that is strictly protected from fishing and other industrial activities.

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