Nightingale Island Oil Spill

UPDATE: Watch my recent video from Nightingale Island.

Ecological disaster is not the story I wanted to send from this place, but it’s the one that is happening here right now.

I sailed to the Tristan Da Cunha island group because I was following a lifelong dream. The remotest set of inhabited islands in the world promised serenity, calm and safety from the ills and pollution that plague other parts of the world. Alas, even those distant problems found their way to these pristine shores in the South Atlantic.

A week ago today, (March 16), the MV Oliva (Valetta) crashed on the rocks of Nightingale Island, spilling its cargo of soybeans and some 800 tons of fuel oil onto the coast. The ship was crossing the Atlantic from Brazil to Singapore when for reasons still unknown, it hit the island’s coast at a speed of 14 knots.

The captain and all crew escaped the vessel, but by last Saturday the ship had begun to break up in the heavy surf. The oil slick had spread around the island and then out to sea in the direction of Inaccessible Island.

Our ship, the MV National Geographic Explorer arrived at Tristan Da Cunha yesterday and sailed to Nightingale Island this morning, as intended on our original itinerary with Lindblad Expeditions. Instead of mere bird watching, we were met with the disturbing sight of penguins and seals coated in sticky black oil.

Nightingale Island is home to some 20,000 of the endangered sub-species of Northern Rockhopper Penguin. Sadly, these are the birds that were hit the hardest—thousands are expected to die from the effects of the oil spill. While this spill is relatively minor in comparison to so many in the world today, it represents a major calamity for the fragile birdlife on pristine Nightingale Island and a heavy blow to the small group of islanders of nearby Tristan da Cunha.

Today, I watched as 750 oil-soaked penguins were collected off Nightingale Island and removed to nearby Tristan da Cunha where they will be cleaned with detergent and hot water. I held a dead, oil-stained penguin in my hands, it’s tiny body showing the stress of the spill but also the season itself.

Dead, oil-stained Northern Rockhopp Penguin on Nightingale Island, South Atlantic (Andrew Evans/National Geographic)

The oil spill occurred at the tail end of the rockhoppers’ molting season, worsening the natural struggle of the skinny penguins to return to the sea and find enough fish to survive. In order to prevent the penguins from returning to the sea, large pens have been set up on Nightingale Island.

Today I watched as oil-stained penguins preened the oil from their feathers, which causes them to ingest large amounts of petroleum and will kill them if they are not treated. Oil-soaked fur seal pups also hid among the rocks and tussock grass of the islands, leaving oil stains on the ground around them.

A crisis response team had arrived by tugboat from South Africa—a four-day journey by sea. Commercial divers were on the scene to help dismantle the shipwreck and attempt to prevent further fuel from spilling out into the sea.

Another fear is the introduction of rats from the ship to the island, which could decimate the local bird population, including several endemics to the Tristan Island group. Three different types of rat traps had been laid on the island, and according to Tristan’s conservation officer Trevor Glass, no rats have been seen or trapped so far.

I took these images this morning while walking around Nightingale Island (and there are many more to follow). It was a painful and disturbing scene. My only consolation is that the people of Tristan take their birds very seriously and the entire island is contributing to the rescue efforts.


  1. Van Anh
    March 23, 2011, 2:36 pm

    I’m so sad now to hear and see this disaster and the wjnter is coming in that side of the globe, can they survive and get fat enough to face the rigid season?

  2. brian
    March 23, 2011, 3:47 pm

    OH NO! Not the kind of black penguins we were hoping to see from @wheresandrew. We prefer these kind Thanks for sharing your stories.

  3. Robin Bean
    Gilroy, California
    March 23, 2011, 6:57 pm

    The story has been discussed a little in the news here. Most information coming through twitter. Very sad, I hope your group can help wash oil off the wildlife.

  4. […] and this article, where i actually heard about the oil spill, from nat. geo […]

  5. brian
    March 24, 2011, 8:44 am

    Just done some research – you can donate online to SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) which is actually conducting the rescue operation.

  6. Svante Björck
    Lund University, Sweden
    March 24, 2011, 10:23 am

    I spent a few weeks there with my expedition members last winter and it is a magnificent place, totally unspoilt. We went there for coring in a few of the small ponds to analyse the climate history.
    I think it is scandal that a cargo ship comes that close to such a vulnerable place.

  7. Sue Hall
    United Kingdom
    March 24, 2011, 5:43 pm

    Thanks for your updates on such a catastrophe – my daughter Nicky, who works at SANCCOB is currently on her way to the island (via the 2nd vessel from Cape Town). As I will be unable to ring her, your updates will prove invaluiable to me. This situation is shocking and I hope to God that these endangered species are given more press coverage worldwide as many people are unaware of what has happened.

  8. Julian Brimelow
    March 24, 2011, 11:49 pm

    I was fortunate enough to spend an unforgettable year on Gough island, which is located southeast of Tristan. It is a truly incredible area with amazing wildlife.

    I will be donating to SANCCOB– Tks for the heads up Brian.

  9. John Cork
    March 25, 2011, 12:00 am

    I did a great deal of research on the history of Tristan, and I, too, have dreamed of going there someday. Tristan da Cunha is populated by a stout few who 50 years ago looked at this modern world and chose to return to a cold, remote corner far away from what the rest of us call comfort. This tragedy breaks my heart and angers me to no end. From BP’s spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the nuclear catastrophe in Japan to the mining disasters in Chile and the USA, we must realize that the cost of our thirst for cheap energy comes at a very high price in the long run. We must live more efficiently. We must take fewer risks. We must realize that no system is foolproof. We must do better.

  10. Sharon Chen
    seattle, wa
    March 25, 2011, 12:20 am

    Can someone tell me what cargo ships are doing in that area? Are there any major ports? Why even go there? So frustrated…

  11. […] the oil spill that preceded my visit was not. This brief video shows some of what I saw and you see my photo gallery here. […]

  12. kelly
    March 25, 2011, 10:06 am

    This is truly upsetting. What’s the website for the company that caused the accident. Even though it probably won’t make a difference, I’d like to send an email voicing my anger at this tragedy.

  13. Dr. Roy Bishop
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    March 25, 2011, 3:49 pm

    Over 2500 km of empty ocean in all directions, and a ship runs into one of the islands of the Tristan group! In these days of accurate charts, radar, and GPS navigation, that is absolutely inexcusable. Three years ago this month I saw Nightingale Island in the dawn mist as our ship “Corinthian II” approached Tristan da Cunha, never dreaming that such a remote, pristine island would suffer such a tregedy.

  14. Dr. Roy Bishop
    Nova Scotia, Canada
    March 25, 2011, 3:52 pm

    (Corrected comment):
    Over 2500 km of empty ocean in all directions, and a ship runs into one of the islands of the Tristan group! In these days of accurate charts, radar, and GPS navigation, that is absolutely inexcusable. Three years ago this month I saw Nightingale Island in the dawn mist as our ship “Corinthian II” approached Tristan da Cunha, never dreaming that such a remote, pristine island would suffer such a tragedy.

  15. Mitsinjo
    March 26, 2011, 4:21 am

    (1) Why is marine propulsion still based on heavy fuel oil? (2) Why does a ship have to pass by a remote islands thriving with unspolit wildlife? (3) Why does one have to ship soybean from Brazil to Singapore anyway? (4) Why do I have the feeling that none of the persons responsible will be held viable in the end?

  16. Debi Pittman Wilkey
    Florida, US
    March 28, 2011, 4:47 pm

    So sad… such terrible photos… thanks for sharing …

  17. jill malloy
    Auckland New zealand
    March 28, 2011, 5:38 pm

    Reply to Mitsinjo. March 26
    My feelings exactly, guess it’s not declared a marine sanctuary. Once again we must hang our heads in shame. I personally only use public transport, although once again this is governed by the mighty oil barrons, and our relentless demand for fuels.

  18. Jotman
    March 29, 2011, 4:28 am

    On my blog as a follow up to Andrew’s report, I posted a video of the Inaccessible Is. rockhopper colony that was taken prior to the disaster. Adorable creatures. I’m also worried about the albatross and other vulnerable seabirds on Nightengale Is. They say the ship might have had rats.

    Great questions Mitsinjo!

  19. Howie Riley
    March 30, 2011, 5:58 pm

    It is inexcusable that something like this crime against nature could happen in 2011 in a ship built in 2009.

  20. mmreno
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    April 3, 2011, 12:12 am

    This proverbial single tree in the middle of nowhere is just what the nay-sayers have said; give it time and some dick head will screw it up. And the rest of the USA wonders why us native Nevadans do not want Yucca Mountain, in our back yard, to be the nations high level nuke dump.
    Could it be because we already know some stupid S.O.B.
    will find the only tree in say 2900 miles round, and run it over? I mean how in hell do you run into an island 2900 miles from nowhere?

  21. Robert King
    Portland, Maine
    April 3, 2011, 8:17 am

    I am fed up with the irresponsibility of these oil companies. It goes on unimpeded. It has been less than a year since the BP bastards walked away from the Louisianan catastrophe. Monetary penalties do not work! They have too much money! They can afford to keep doing it without batting an eye. But they surely dread prison time. We must demand a change in the laws.

    It is time to pass laws that will make it mandatory to publicize the names and faces of people responsible and to bring them to high-profile trials. If found guilty they must do lengthy prison time. There is no other way to stop their indifference. Let us get together now and force each of our governments to work on legislation to defend against this being repeated over and over. Because if we don’t….we cannot expect anything to change. We will get more of the same. It is time to force change now! Let us begin to form a hard-core coalition that will work toward forcing these people into being fully responsible for their actions.

    Let us get together with ideas on how to get started on this. I will help with my time. Certainly if enough of us get together we can force change…..worldwide! I need people to contact me with ideas on how to get started. Let’s do it!

  22. Dyan deNapoli - The Penguin Lady
    Boston, MA
    April 6, 2011, 7:34 am

    Having worked as a rehabilitation supervisor during the rescue of 19,000 oiled penguins from the Treasure oil spill in South Africa in 2000, I was devastated upon hearing the news of this latest oil spill – especially because I knew that, due to the extremely remote location of Tristan, it would not be possible to mount a large-scale rescue, like that which took place after the Treasure oil spill.

    But I am comforted knowing that some of the key players in that rescue effort are now out at Tristan – the vast experience that Estelle van der Merwe, Mariette Hopley and Venessa Strauss bring to the team will prove invaluable in making the penguin rescue at Tristan as successful as it possibly can be.

    There are three main groups taking donations specifically for the rescue efforts at Tristan. The funds raised by these organizations are tax deductible and will go directly to the islands. (Although the ship’s insurers will eventually have to pay for the rescue and clean-up efforts, it will be some time before that transpires – and they need money now to finance the rescue.) You can donate through these groups:

    Ocean Doctor (Dr. David Guggenheim – who happened to be at Tristan when the oil spill occurred. It was through his persistence that this tragedy was brought to the attention of the major networks) Click on the green ‘donate now’ button:

    Foundation for Antarctic Research & National Wildlife Humane Society (a joint effort) through Crowdrise:

    RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – in the UK):

    The penguins need you! PLEASE DONATE GENEROUSLY!

    Thank you,
    Dyan deNapoli – The Penguin Lady

  23. Elephant's Eye
    Porterville, South Africa
    April 8, 2011, 1:23 pm

    I linked back to you in today’s post. So far away from anywhere, these oiled penguins are not in the news.

  24. […] read Andrew’s blog posts about his travels, click here. (This will bring you to one of his posts about Nightingale […]

  25. Shelley Ottenbrite
    Richmond VA
    April 14, 2011, 11:30 pm

    To those who asked why it isn’t a marine sanctuary it is a UN protected bioreserve.

    To those who wonder how a ship can run into an island a thousand miles from land in the middle of the ocean . . . My idea is that, they were headed to Singapore, a place endangered species are traded for big bucks. What better place to make a stop?

  26. […] Nightingale Island Oil Spill Author: John Bruno on March 26, 2011 Yet another oil spill is impacting a pristine marine environment. This time along the shore of extremely isolated Nightingale Island in the South Atlantic. Read more about it here and about Andres Evans’ trip there to document the impacts here. […]

  27. […] adventures like mustering Brumbies in Australia, diving the Great Barrier Reef, documenting a tragic oil spill affecting endangered penguins on Tristan Da Cunha, crossing the Equator by kayak, dropping in to […]

  28. […] adventures like mustering Brumbies in Australia, diving the Great Barrier Reef, documenting a tragic oil spill affecting endangered penguins on Tristan Da Cunha, crossing the Equator by kayak, dropping in to […]

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  31. Simon Pipe
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    March 18, 2012, 10:00 am

    Nature is amazing in its ability to recover from the influence of man. From my South Atlantic news site:

    Efforts by the people of Tristan da Cunha to rescue birds in last year’s oil spill disaster appear to have been a great success, against enormous odds.

    A count appears to show little impact on breeding among the island’s endangered rockhopper penguin colonies after the MS Oliva broke up on rocks.

    Read more:

    I shall run a story linking to your National Geographic video – if I can make it work.

  32. […] Some of you will recall how last year I reported on the most unfortunate event in this video and blog post, which was later picked up by several blogs, including our very own National Geographic and the New […]

  33. […] By chance, National Geographic Traveler Andrew Evans had set sail for the islands and arrived shortly after the wreck of the Oliva. He documented the effects of the spill on the wildlife in his Traveler blog. […]

  34. […] penguin” — one of the rarest genetic mutations, seldom seen anywhere on the planet — and to Nightingale Island, where last year he helped break a story on his Digital Nomad blog about an oil spill on that […]

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  38. Linda
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    February 7, 2013, 12:26 am

    Hi Andrew, just a follow up from your article, one of the life boats from the ship wreck MV Olivia washed up on Salt Creek beach here in South Aust. a few days ago. It’s travelled 7000km to reach shore in the last couple of years see

  39. […] Birds, Photograph by Andrew Evans, National […]

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