‘Crystal clear lagoons all covered in black oil’: Mauritian volunteers work to avoid disaster

Mauritian volunteers are reckoning with toxic fumes as they try to clean tonnes of crude oil from the island’s formerly crystal-clear lagoon.

Roughly 1,000 tonnes of oil has spread through a lagoon after Japanese vessel MV Wakashio ran into a coral reef on July 25.

Workers continue to pump tonnes of fuel from the bulk carrier, which remains on the reef, to prevent a renewed spill on the island’s east coast.

The ship’s hull continues to crack as it is buffeted by wind and swell.

Local volunteers have taken to building makeshift containment booms from sugar cane mulch wrapped in shade cloth and sewn together with fishing line.

Some have even donated hair, which is used to help soak up the oil.


Others are pulling the crude oil from mangroves at the spill near Pointe d’Esny, like professional kite surfer Willow-River Tonkin.

“It’s pretty heavy to see one of these crystal clear lagoons all covered in black oil and golden diesel,” the 21-year-old said.

He said with the ship hitting reef on the island’s windward side made the oil spread quickly.

“The current and wind pushes it towards the beach super quickly, on the first day it was on the beach in a couple of hours,” Mr Tonkin said.

“Unfortunately the country didn’t take action soon enough.”

‘We’re starting to realise it’s really serious stuff’

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Willow-River Tonkin is trying to clean the beaches

Mr Tonkin said fumes from the oil are so strong they made him sick.

“The crude oil, the fumes are so strong, I was there for three days in a row and I got so sick on Sunday that I had a fever and the most painful headache I’ve ever had in my life.

“I though I would have to go to hospital. I was in bed for two days.

“Whatever the toxic fumes can give I had it. My stomach was messed up.”

He said he has returned to help hundreds of other locals try to clean up.

“We’re starting to realise it’s really serious stuff that we’re dealing with so we have to be careful,” he said.

Activists said they are beginning to find dead marine life including eels, starfish, crabs and seabirds.

An oil slick expands across a body of sea water near an island off the coast of Mauritius
The spill has set back two decades of work to restore the natural wildlife and plants in the affected lagoon.(AP/Mauritian Wildlife Foundation: Nik Cole)

Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth warned the country to brace for the worst.

The Government, which declared an emergency on Friday, is working with former colonial ruler France to try to remove the oil.

The International Maritime Organization is also providing technical advice and coordinating the response.

UN agencies and other international groups said they are sending environmental and oil spill experts to help.

Spill sets back two decades of conservation work

The spill has set back two decades of work to restore the natural wildlife and plants in the affected lagoon.

The restoration project started after the Government banned sand mining in the area in 2000, said the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation’s conservation director, Vikash Tatayah.

“There is some anger and some criticism from the civil society that the Government may have taken too much time to respond,” he said.

The ship was grounded for nearly two weeks before it started leaking oil.

Aerial view of oil tanker spilling oil into the sea at a reef near Mauritius
Workers continue to pump tonnes of fuel from the bulk carrier, which remains on the reef.(EMAE/AP: Gwendoline Defente)

There was no immediate comment from Mauritian government officials.

The Wakashio passed an annual inspection in March without any problems, Japan’s ClassNK inspection body said.

The ship’s owner Mitsui OSK Lines said in statement: “We will do our utmost towards resolving the situation quickly.”

The company said it had sent six employees to the site and was considering sending more, along with transport supplies.

Greenpeace said the spill is likely to be one of the worst ecological crises faced by Mauritius.

“Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d’Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health,” said spokesman Happy Khambule.