Search for phone signal caused oil spill, say Japanese investigators

Skipper caught on tape saying 'What have I done? My career is gone' after crashing into coral reef after a couple of whiskeys

Japan’s Transport Safety Board on Thursday judged that a cargo ship that spilled 1,000 tons of fuel oil into a pristine marine environment off the coast of Mauritius in 2020 was travelling off course in search of a cell phone signal.

The MV Wakashio was en route from Lianyungang, China to a Brazilian port when, on July 25 2020, it struck trouble near Blue Bay Marine Park, a popular snorkeling spot on the Indian Ocean nation Mauritius. The Japanese-owned vessel was sailing under a Panamanian flag of convenience, and captained by a Indian national.

According to the report, two days before it ran aground, the captain changed the 100,000-plus ton ship’s route to travel five nautical miles from the coast line instead of the originally planned 22 nautical miles. He ordered the course change without obtaining proper marine charts of the area and therefore did not know that waters in the area are less than 20 meters deep.

The ship subsequently hit a coral reef.

“Reefs and obstacles were displayed near the place of occurrence,” reads [PDF] the 89-page Japan Transport Safety Board report in Japanese.

“The body buckled due to being knocked to the seabed and broke into the skin near the fuel oil tank. As a result, about 1,000 tons of fuel oil loaded in the tank spilled out to sea,” the document states.

The report noted that the captain of the vessel changed the voyage plan for the purpose of coming within range of signal for his smartphone. It also noted the behavior was not an isolated incident and that safety awareness among the crew at large was lacking.

It gets worse: the report found that just before the incident, the captain knocked back two glasses of whiskey and water during a shipboard birthday party.

“Shit, what I have done in my life? Now, my career is gone!” accurately said the captain, according to a transcript of a voyage data recording (VDR) audio clip taken from the boat. Such recordings are required on ships weighing more than 3000 tons for the purpose of assisting in accident investigations.

The captain was later arrested.

The transcript reveals chatter regarding both the birthday party and the quest for better cell phone signal. Local police reportedly originally denied the ship had sailed close to land and its operator Mitsui OSK told media outlet Forbes the fleet had access to free unlimited satellite internet onboard the ship.

The East African island nation declared a state of environmental emergency the day following the spill.

According to the Japan Transport Safety Board, the oil spill spread at sea from Blue Bay to nearby Trou d'Eau Douce, a distance of around 25 km by sea and 35 km by coastline. The oil also spread into coastal coves.

Cleanup was delayed due to a combination of COVID-19 and weather conditions, the Board wrote, which caused the oil spill to do further damage.

Greenpeace has labelled the incident the worst environmental disaster in Mauritius history. The org reported dead whales and dolphins washing ashore, among many other unpleasantries. ®

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