The impact of human activity on the planet and the consequences of that activity going wrong are nowhere as dramatically demonstrated as in the case of marine oil spills. Images of traumatized seabirds, their plumage caked in thick, viscous oil, offer heart-breaking reminders of the fragile balance existing between the natural world and man’s exploitation of its resources.
The Castillo de Bellver was a Spanish-registered supertanker which in August 1983 was en route from the Persian Gulf to Spain with a cargo of 252,000 tons of crude oil. As it crossed Saldanha Bay off the coast of South Africa, 110 km (70 mi) northwest of Cape Town, the massive vessel caught fire. The cause remains unclear but the effect was an instant inferno as the oil burned uncontrollably. Firefighters were quick to the scene; although they were unable to save the ship, they managed to rescue the crew before the blazing vessel broke in two and its stem section sank to the seabed. At this point the tanker was in deep water 40 km (25 mi) off the coast, and some 100,000 tons of oil, still in its tanks, may have accompanied the stem to the bottom.
A few days later the still floating bow section was towed further offshore and sunk with the aid of controlled explosives. Around 50,000-60,000 tons of oil are estimated to have spilled into the sea or burned, but – remarkably given the scale of the accident – there was relatively little environmental damage. This was thanks to factors such as wind direction and location. Judicious spraying with dispersants meant that local beaches were not significantly threatened by oil slicks and luckily there was little damage to local fish stocks.
When: August 6 1983
Where: Saldanha Bay, South Africa
Toll: There were no human casualties but the spill left 1,500 gannets heavily contaminated by oil. The colony had gathered on a nearby offshore island for the breeding season.
You should know: At the time damage was also feared from a ‘black rain’ of oil droplets which fell from the air after the accident. However, no adverse effects on local crops or grazing lands were observed over the long term.