Gareth Wilson, John Harvey and Shaanaaz de Jager
AS the cargo ship Kiani Satu began to sink yesterday off Buffels Bay, environmentalists were assessing the damage to beaches around Nelson Mandela Bay where clumps of oil washed up at the weekend.
In St Francis Bay, animal activists had their hands full trying to save dozens of birds that have appeared on beaches covered in oil.
The rice carrier, still laden with more than 300 tons of oil and 15000 tons of rice, started taking on water about 70 nautical miles off the coast.
"She is sinking. We are going to have to wave her goodbye," Captain Nigel Campbell of the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) said. "When she sinks it will be up to the Department of Environmental Affairs to monitor the situation."
He said a decision had been taken earlier to pull the vessel further out to sea, where the ocean was 1000m deep. At this depth, the water temperature was between 3°C and 5°C, which it was hoped would be cold enough to "solidify" the oil on board the ship and limit its spreading.
Environmental Affairs Department spokesman Zolile Nqayi said the department had accepted that the vessel would sink. "The good news is that she is already 70 nautical miles off the coast and it is highly unlikely that our coast will be further affected by pollution," he said.
"We are keeping a constant eye on the situation."
Nqayi said the department had been assured by the ship's German owners, Esmeralda Schiffahrts, that they would cover all the costs – including the sinking of the ship.
E-mails sent to the Esmeralda Schiffahrts head office in Germany have gone unanswered. By yesterday, The Herald team saw patches of oil at Kini Bay outside Port Elizabeth, with reports of oil being spotted on beaches in the Maitlands area.
The first marine fatalities have already been reported – 12 cormorants have died and two seals have been found dead in the Goukamma Nature Reserve. Three gannets undergoing rehabilitation in Cape St Francis have also died. SA Marine Rehabilitation and Education Centre (Samrec) trustee and co-founder Libby Sharwood said she had already collected six penguins in Port Elizabeth – from Maitlands, Beachview, Seaview, Pollok Beach and Kini Bay.
"They are being stabilised at our facility in Port Elizabeth. Sanccob [Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds] has requested the penguins be sent to their Eastern Cape branch in Cape St Francis, which we will do once they are strong enough."
Sanccob spokesman Francois Louw said 165 Cape gannets were being treated. "We also have 43 oiled penguins here."
Sanccob conservation director Venessa Strauss said the organisation had been contracted by the ship owners to clean the oiled birds. Strauss said while she did not know where the oil was floating, it would affect local islands known for breeding colonies.
SanParks Eastern Cape spokeswoman Fayroush Ludick said 167 oiled gannets were removed from Bird Island last week, of which two had since died.
"It is assumed that it is oil from the vessel in question."
Meanwhile, 23 people were airlifted to safety yesterday from a ship that ran aground on a sand bank off the harbour entrance to Richards Bay in 10m swells.
Three tugs then attempted to pull the 230m coal cargo ship, the Smart, off the sand bank.
Shortly after 4pm the order was given to abandon ship as its "structural integrity was compromised", the NSRI said. – Additional reporting by Sapa