Salvage crews were preparing to sink a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground off Mauritius, despite opposition from environmental campaigners.
The MV Wakashio broke into two on Saturday, almost three weeks after hitting a reef and spilling 1,000 tonnes of oil into idyllic waters full of marine life.
Scientists say the full impact of the spill is still unclear, but the oil has already reached exceptional zones of marine life, including the Ile aux Aigrettes nature reserve and the Blue Bay Marine Park, a unique coastal wetland recognised for the diversity of its coral and fish species, as well as for the endangered green turtle.
The wildlife at risk include the seagrasses blanketing sand in the shallow waters, clownfish living in coral reefs, mangroves systems, and the critically endangered pink pigeon, endemic to the island.
Two tugboats towed the larger part of the wreck 15km (9 miles) out into the open ocean on Thursday, where it is to be flooded and sunk to a depth of 3,180 metres. The smaller section remains wedged on the reef where the shipwreck occurred.
Authorities said that the location of the sinking had been decided upon after widespread consultation with different experts and conservationists.
“Now it will be filled with sea water to sink it to the bottom,” Mauritius’s shipping director, Alain Donat, said, adding that it could take hours for it to descend.
The plan to sink the freighter, which was travelling from China to Brazil, has been opposed by environmentalists worried about further damage.
Happy Khambule, Greenpeace Africa’s senior climate and energy campaign manager, said the Mauritian government had chosen the worst option.
“Sinking this vessel would risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Réunion. Mauritians had nothing to gain from the MV Wakashio crossing their waters and are now asked to pay the price of this disaster. More pollution further risks their tourist-based economy and fish-based food security,” Khambule said.
The disaster comes after years of work to restore the natural wildlife and plants on the affected coastline.
It has now emerged that the carrier had diverted more than 100km from a regular shipping lane, according to maritime analysis firm Windward.
“It was on a very bad trajectory,” Omer Primor, Windward’s head of marketing, told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear why the ship deviated from its course. Tracking data for other cargo vessels passing close to Mauritius recently show them all sticking to the shipping lane.
Two of the ship’s officers have since been arrested on charges of endangering safe navigation. The captain is believed to have been celebrating a birthday of a crew member on board and failed to respond to attempts by the coastguard to contact the vessel. The company has declined to comment. A spokesman at Mitsui OSK, which chartered the ship, said it was also investigating the carrier’s course but declined to comment further.
Japan has sent teams of experts to assist in the cleanup, while others have been dispatched from France and Britain to aid the archipelago.