Norwegian Shipwreck Under Investigation as Oil Slick Spreads

BERGEN, Norway, January 29, 2004 (ENS) - The Norwegian bulk carrier Rocknes that capsized near Bergen with a load of stone last week has been successfully towed to a deep water quay offshore. An estimated 300 tons of marine fuel leaked from the wreck, and up to 180 tons are left on board. The heavy oil has spread for 15 kilometers (nine miles) along fjords northwest of Bergen.

Volunteers from local municipalities Friday began the cleanup of oil along the shores of the Vatlastraumen straits, from the wreck of the Antigua and Barbuda flagged state Rocknes. Firefighters, military and civil defense personnel participated in the cleanup.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has begun a wildlife rescue operation to save seabirds from the effects of the spilled oil.

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IFAW’s Barbara Callaghan rehabilitates an eider duck rescued from an oil spill off the coast of Bergen, Norway. (Photo by N. Jenkins courtesy IFAW)
The wreck is now moored at a deep water pier in the Coast Centre Base in Aagotnes on the island of Sotra, according to the "Scandinavian Shipping Gazette."

The Rocknes was towed upside down in an operation that took 14 vessels, including four tugboats, a large floating lift and a support vessel - about five hours to go the seven miles from the Vatlestraumen Strait near Bergen to the Aagotnes shipyard.

The towage vessels all flew their flags at half-mast to honor the 18 seamen, including the captain, who lost their lives when the Rocknes turned over on the night of January 19.

The pilot survived and testified in Bergen on Monday and Tuesday at a joint maritime inquiry launched by Norway and the flag state of Antigua and Barbuda into the cause of the accident

The police, using a remote operated vehicle, found traces of antifouling paint on the sea bottom which indicates that the Rocknes may have hit an underwater rock just before it capsized.

Testimony at the inquiry revealed that the loading equipment at the terminal where the Rocknes loaded 23,400 tons of gravel was too short for a vessel as large as the Rocknes, so the load of gravel she was carrying was not evenly distributed in the cargo hold, according to the "Norway Post."

Divers will now try to enter the wreck in investigate conditions aboard and attempt to recover more bodies, as only five have been found.

Smit Salvage of Rotterdam has the salvage contract and will then begin attempts to right the vessel, which is owned by Norwegian company Jebsen Management. The salvage operation may yield further clues as to the causes of the accident.

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The Rocknes oil slick can be seen in this aerial photograph. (Photo courtesy Kystverket)
As the oil slick continues to spread along the Norwegian coast, IFAW's team of experts from Brazil, Canada, Germany, the UK, and the United States is working with local Norwegian groups to determine how much wildlife has been affected by the spill.

Initial reports estimate that more than 10,000 birds are in the fjord system and about 1,000 have been oiled, IFAW said Wednesday.

Eider ducks and herring gulls have been most heavily impacted and there is concern for a nature reserve further north, which contains rare velvet scoters and long-tailed ducks. A drop of oil the size of a quarter is enough to kill a bird, IFAW says.

The bird rescuers are setting up a rehabilitation center in an old warehouse on the Island of Askoy and an appeal through the Norwegian media has led to volunteers offering the use of their boats. IFAW's five teams are directing a search and rescue operation to find oiled birds along the rocky coastline and the first birds have begun arriving at the center.

"This has already been a terrible human tragedy and that is, of course, everyone's first concern," said Paul Kelway, manager of IFAW's Emergency Response Oil Spill Team. "We are just hoping that we can help the local groups ensure this is not a wildlife tragedy as well."