Day 15 - March 17, 2011 - Nightingale Island, Tristan da Cunha Island group

By Luke Kenny, Fisheries Biologist

Co-ordinates: 37˚26.2’ S, 12˚29.0’ W
Weather: Sunny but strong winds

Air Temperature: 20 °C, 68 °F (12:00 hrs)
Sea Temperature: 18°C, 64.4 °F
Pressure: 1007.0 hPa
Wind: F4-5 from the SW

Today was a St Patrick’s Day to remember for this Irishman.
At 06:30 I joined my fellow Expedition Team members and a handful of guests on the bridge of the Prince Albert II, as light slowly began to leach from the horizon into the sky above. The wind was blowing hard and some rain or airborne spray dashed the bridge windows. Ahead, and just off our starboard bow lay Nightingale Island. Despite it being a new and rather exciting landfall for almost all present, eyes were firmly focused at the north-western end rather than the island in general. There shone the lights of the stricken MS Oliva, a soya bean bulk carrier having been en route to Singapore from Santos, Brazil, now grounded on the reefs of this rugged island.

Ahead too, coming along the mass of Nightingale’s cliffs was the fishing vessel Edinburgh, having already picked up 12 of the Oliva’s crew yesterday. Our Captain, Alexander Golubev now renewed his offer of assistance with both the FV Edinburgh and with the administration on Tristan da Cunha, an offer that was gratefully accepted. With the light improving our first charge was to photograph the stricken vessel, for information on the ship’s resting position and present condition would greatly assist in discussions underway to deal with the situation. Photographs were duly emailed to the administration at Tristan da Cunha while the Prince Albert II stood by, poised and ready to assist further.

It was time for an Expedition Team meeting, so I joined the team in The Theatre to discuss the altered plan for the day. As usual, when things go awry, we continue with our comprehensive lecture programme so that at least the guests are both kept occupied and are indeed learning about the local environment. Juan Carlos Restrepo our Geologist was first up, covering the topic of Vulcanology, apt considering we were next to islands of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Thereafter, Dr Harold Schwammer, Vice Director of Vienna Zoo brought us up to date on the successful breeding programme of the northern rockhopper penguins of the same zoo, northern rockhoppers of course being native to this group of islands.

The day was continuing bright and windy. Around the Prince Albert II, now anchored and awaiting developments, hundreds or indeed thousands of great shearwaters skimmed low over the water, their numbers augmented by broad-billed prions and a handful of yellow-billed albatross as well as the odd sooty albatross and spectacled petrel. I joined several guests on Deck 6 aft, marvelling at the profusion of avian life. Several photographs made token efforts to capture this scene but none could really capture the moment in truth. Suddenly I was startled from my reverie. The radio crackled and Robin our Expedition Leader advised us that we were to embark on a Zodiac cruise after lunch; we had been given special permission to do so by the Tristan da Cunha administration.

I had finished my salad and was eyeing my main course when the radio again crackled to life, requesting all Expedition Team members to hasten to the bridge. There I learned that our Zodiac tour was to be postponed and that given the improvement in sea state we were to immediately launch three Zodiacs and pick up the remaining ten crew members from the grounded ship, Oliva. All quickly donned our gear and reconvened at the side gate, and once safely in Zodiacs we began to make our way to the scene of the accident, firstly picking up a crew member of the FV Edinburgh for the added benefit of local knowledge.

In one of our Zodiacs was our Staff Captain, Mika Appel, who assessed the situation and confirmed with our Captain that conditions permitted the planned rescue operation. The Oliva, which presumably had struck in a more head on fashion, had since swung around, leaving a narrow wedge-shaped piece of water between her starboard quarter and the rocky and treacherous coastline of north-western Nightingale Island. In the waters around the vessel the sight and smell of fuel oil met our senses. Closer to the vessel and especially up the narrow wedge of water the surface was thick with oil, causing concern for our Staff Captain over the cooling system of our engines. We could ill-afford to have our engines fail once close to the vessel

Two of our Zodiacs then began the rescue operation, collecting crew members who climbed one at a time down the long pilot ladder hanging from the stern quarter. It was no easy task, given the relatively large swell running around the ship’s stern, to position the Zodiac directly under the swinging pilot ladder and collect a nervous crewmember at the right moment before the swell dropped the boat far below and out of position. It took both skilful driving and hands at the ready to grab and secure the descending crew. After two runs each we transferred the crew to the third Zodiac which then made the run to the Edinburgh while the other two Zodiacs ran their engines out in clean water to help clear the engine filters.

Another couple of runs and all ten crew were safely off the vessel, which continued to slowly heave and roll over its rocky pivot. Once they were transferred to the Edinburgh the Expedition team could begin to relax again, and compare how badly both we and the Zodiacs were covered in oil. The next challenge was to re-board the ship without smearing oil everywhere. This required the assistance of a great many staff from all departments, and duly we all de-robed our oil-covered attire at the side gate before filtering into the mud room to scrub the worst off with the necessary scrubbing solutions borrowed from the engine room.

I joined Will and Hans-Peter in the Panorama Lounge for a well-deserved cup of tea while the deck department assiduously went to work on the oil-coated Zodiacs. As we discussed the whole matter, not one of us wished to be in the deck department at this moment such was the filthy nature of their job in hand.

As the sun dipped towards the horizon, I joined a great many guests out on deck to watch thousands of broad-billed prions and great shearwaters flocking over the sea before making their journey into the safety of their tussac burrows for the night. Ahead and clear on the horizon lay Tristan da Cunha, our goal for tomorrow, while to the west with the setting sun lay Inaccessible Island. With that it was time to reflect on what the true tragedy of the situation may be, the oiling of the millions of birds that make their home on this remote island group. It is a race against time and the elements as to whether a salvage tug from South Africa can reach the Oliva before she releases all her fuel oil into the surrounding waters.