Tristan da Cunha Oil Spill – Six Years After

Today marks the 6th anniversary of one of the world’s most remote wildlife rescue operation on Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.

Tucked away in the South Atlantic Ocean, mid-way between South Africa and South America, and a little east of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, lies the Tristan da Cunha archipelago and nearby Gough Island, home to 85% of the global Northern Rockhopper Penguin Eudyptes moseleyi population.

The archipelago comprises three main islands: Inaccessible, Nightingale and Tristan da Cunha itself, with Tristan being the only island with a permanent settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. Nestled at the base of the volcano on the island’s north-west coast, the village is home to about 270 inhabitants – the Tristanians. Gough Island, 380 km south-southeast of the Tristan group, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (together with Inaccessible Island) and the only breeding site for this penguin south of the Subtropical front.


Northern Rockhopper Penguin – photo by Antje Steinfurth

The penguin’s bobbing yellow hairdo and braying call is a familiar sight and sound for the Tristanians. Since people settled on Tristan in the early 19th century, the pinnamins, as the locals endearingly call their penguins, have played a key role in the island’s traditions. However, a 90% decline in the population since the 19th century, combined with the penguin’s small breeding range and vulnerability to land- and sea-based threats, meant that when the Northern Rockhopper was recognised as a full species in 2008, it was immediately listed as Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Just three years later, the species’ precarious conservation status was driven home when the cargo ship MS Oliva ran aground off the north-western coast of Nightingale Island on 16 March 2011. Approximately 1500 tons of fuel and heavy crude oil escaped from the ship, encircling Nightingale and nearby Middle (locally called Alex) islands, breeding sites to almost half the world’s Northern Rockhopper population. Devastating reports of oiled wildlife and coastlines quickly made the international news. What followed, however, was one of the most remarkable wildlife rescue operations ever undertaken.


MS Oliva aground off Nightingale Island on March 17, 2011 – photo by Kristine Hannon

Mission Pinnamin

Within hours of the spill, a small army of Tristanian volunteers orchestrated an ambitious rescue operation to try to save their penguins. Nightingale Island, where most of the penguins were caught in the oil, has no fresh water or facilities for cleaning penguins, posing a serious challenge to treating the oiled penguins on site. Penguins had to be transported to Tristan da Cunha, across 30 km of often tumultuous seas, for washing and rehabilitation. Hundreds of clean Rockhoppers were carefully corralled on Nightingale, Middle and Inaccessible to decrease the risk of them becoming exposed to the oil while oiled birds were captured and transferred by dinghy to the MV Edinburgh, a lobster fishing vessel operating in the archipelago that, overnight, was transformed into a penguin rescue hub. On 23 March the first fragile cargo of 473 penguins was brought to Tristan and taken to a makeshift rehabilitation centre set up by island’s Public Works Department.

One For All and All for One

Just about everyone on the island got involved in this operation. While the islanders’ heroic actions however were successful at averting the worst-case scenario of the spill, the price of living in splendid isolation is that help is a long way away. Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island are accessible only by ship, with the closest harbour being in Cape Town, South Africa. And when I say “closest”, it means 7 to 11 sailing days away. While the first salvage vessel left Cape Town one day after the MS Oliva ran aground with one seabird rehabilitation expert and enough stabilization supplies on board for the preliminary treatment of 500 penguins, the much-needed equipment to set up a full cleaning and rehabilitation centre only arrived 18 days after the catastrophe.


Oiled Rockhopper Penguins on Nightingale Island – photo by Trevor Glass

Luckily, the oil spill happened at a time when most of the penguins had already moulted and left the colony for their winter-feeding areas, so the worst-case scenario was fortunately averted. Nonetheless, of the approximately 3700 oiled birds that were collected for rehabilitation, only 10% survived to be released. Probably many more penguins got trapped in the oil slick at sea and hence, these numbers underestimate the actual impact of the pollution.

Lessons Learnt?

Six years after the oil spill, the long-term effects of the oil spill on the population are still unknown. Given that the islands are the strongholds for the Northern Rockhopper this disaster, however raised serious concern as any changes in the islands’ population would have a substantial impact on the global status of this species.

This devastating event taught us once again that disasters can and do strike the most remote places and Tristan da Cunha, renowned as the most isolated human community on Earth, is remote by any standard. The 2011 MS Oliva oil spill highlighted the challenge of getting equipment and medication to the islands when it was critically needed.

The increasing number of ships passing close to the archipelago each year creates a growing risk of chronic oiling as well as further catastrophic spills. Having learnt the lesson, Estelle van der Merwe, a specialist in rehabilitating oiled wildlife, was appointed in 2014 by the Tristan da Cunha government to write an Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Plan for the islands that will enable the Tristanians to be prepared if a disaster should strike once again.

Next Steps

Even though the oil spill had nothing to do with past population declines nor might it be responsible for the fluctuations that followed, what the catastrophe did reveal and highlight in a most striking manner was how little is known about this Endangered species, and that basic but vital information on the species’ general ecology has been almost totally lacking.

It goes without saying that regular surveys carried out by the Tristan Conservation Department have been providing an important and valuable tool to estimate annual population sizes, but are of little help identifying and understanding factors that are driving population trends and dynamics, which is crucial for any decision-making and design of an adequate conservation programme. Hence, there has been a growing need for baseline data and long-term monitoring datasets.

As part of an effort to fill the gap, in 2015, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) partnered up with the Tristan Conservation Department, the British Antarctic Survey, the Zoological Society of Scotland and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) to propose a comprehensive Rockhopper monitoring scheme to the UK Government’s “Darwin Plus” Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund. In March 2016, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the oil spill, funding was awarded and Project Pinnamin was born.

For more information see

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWritten by guest blog by Antje Steinfurth, Conservation Scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Cambridge, UK


April 4 Update on the Tristan da Cunha Oil Spill

Efforts are ongoing in the south Atlantic to rescue and rehabilitate thousands of the endangered Northern Rockhopper Penguins that have been impacted by the grounding (and subsequent oil spill) of the MS Oiiva in the early morning of March 16. Over 2,000 penguins are currently on Tristan Island in the rehabilitation center that has been set up. This is a huge effort, which has included catching local fish to feed the hungry birds several times a day. The response has been carried out by many of Tristan Island’s population, in collaboration with Environmental Advisor, Estelle van der Merwe, and staff from SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds). OWCN staff continue to be ready to assist, if requested.

If you wish to help with this effort, please consider giving to the Nightingale Island Disaster Fighting Fund, which is administered by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the United Kingdom partner of BirdLife International. Your donation will be used to help the penguins and other wildlife affected by the oil, as well as to fund follow-up monitoring and to assess the full impact of this disaster.

Click here to find out how to donate.

Thank you!


Oiled Northern Rockhopper Penguin on Nightingale Island, March 2011. Image taken by Tristan Conservation Team (Simon Glass, Wayne Swain and Matthew Green).

MS Oliva Spill: March 30th Update

A few more updates from the MS Oliva Tristan-based Diary.  To see the full diary, including many new pictures, click here.

Bad weather hampers clean-up transport
Tuesday was another bitingly cold day on Tristan with strong winds and 5 metre swells. Bad weather prevented landing at either Nightingale or Inaccessible. MV Edinburgh took 5.5 hours to make the 25 mile journey between Nightingale and Tristan, a trip which normally takes around 2.5 hours. The tug Singapore left Cape Town today with the SANCOB team and equipment on board, delayed by fog the previous evening.
First oil pollution and oiled penguin in Tristan waters
At 09.30 MV Edinburgh reported two oil slicks 3-4 miles off the south of Tristan. At 12.45 the first oil covered penguin was reported to have been found on the main island of Tristan. Fisherman Desmond Green found the penguin on the beach near Red Sands to the south-west of the Settlement Plain. Environmental Advisor Estelle van der Merwe confirmed that the penguin had been very recently oiled and that oil covered feather samples have been taken. Conservation Officer Trevor Glass has arranged for a team of three to walk out from the Settlement early on Wednesday 30 th March to check the beaches down to the Caves and Stony Beach in the south of the island.
Penguin Rehabilitation News
In the rehab shed the team are doing really well and fed every single penguin, 1593 penguins in total.  More of the cleaner penguins were moved out to the swimming pool, making 282 now in the pool. There are approx 500 penguins left in the shed which gives us room for up to 600 possible new arrivals, as the rest were all strong enough to go outside. It also provides an opportunity to put down a fresh layer of volcanic sand. Nightingale is still holding approximately 600 penguins which it is hoped can be collected soon.
Penguin casualties rising
An intensive care unit or ‘sick bay’ was set up today in a portable container with an adjacent holding area. There are 98 penguins in the ICU and these thin and weak penguins are being given electrolytes and tube fed with Hills a/d, a high nutrition solution. Penguins here are receiving special attention mainly because of being underweight. There were 22 penguins that died in the rehab centre on Monday 28th plus the Broad-billed prion from Alex Island which was heavily oiled, and 21 dead penguins on Tuesday 29th.
Editor’s note: It is understood the total number of dead penguins during Tristan rehab is now 96.
Team work to keep penguins fed with fish
The Sandy Point Express was out again today with a team of fisherman catching fish for the penguins. Pensioner Joyce Hagan and Diana Green were cutting up fish all day into little squares for feeding the penguins.

As usual, we will keep you posted as information comes in.


MS Oliva Spill: 25 Mar Update

Update from the excellent “MS Oliva Tristan-Based Diary“, avaiable by clicking here.

“Report from RSPB Project Officer Katrine Herian 17.00 Thursday 24th March

Stabilising 473 Rockhopper Penguins: Reporting at 17.00 on 24th March, Katrine reports that after the first transfer of 473 rockhoppers this morning the team has begun stabilising them with fluid, vitamins and charcoal to absorb ingested oil. The first priority is to get food into them as the birds are very hungry. Islanders are trying locally caught five fingers, yellowtail and crayfish. In the last hour penguins have started taking small half inch squares of five fingers. The Sandy Point Express barge went out today catching fish specifically to feed the penguins which is being filleted ready to feed to the hungry rockhoppers.

Dangers of washing too early: Washing of birds hasn’t started yet. Birds are being stabilised first. Unfortunately heaters or infrared bulbs are not available to keep birds the birds warm after washing. There is a high risk of pneumonia developing if they are cold. The Tristan swimming pool has been closed for swimming and is being drained of chlorinated water to be partially refilled and used for birds that are not so badly oiled.

Second delivery of penguins from Nightingale, Alex and Inaccessible: 529 more oiled penguins are due to be brought to Tristan aboard MV Edinburgh at 19.00 today from Alex and Nightingale Islands. The Inaccessible Team have reported that they have 450 oiled penguins corralled from the two rookeries at Blenden Hall and Warrens Cliff, awaiting transport to Tristan.

Molly fledgling rescue: Head of Tristan’s Conservation Department Trevor Glass is bringing a fledgling Molly (Atlantic Yellow-Nosed Albatross) fledgling back with him that was found oiled after first flight. Reports indicate the young molly (you won’t get a yellow nose for a while!) has been successfully washed and is being kept warm near the vessel’s funnel.”

Like most others in the oiled wildlife community, the OWCN stands by to help if needed. For now, we offer our hopes and prayers to SANCCOB and the residents of the Tristan da Cunha Island community for a safe response in extremely difficult circumstances.

– Mike

Update: MS Oliva Oil Spill, Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic

Good Morning Everyone,

We just wanted to post a couple of links to help provide you with up-to-date information regarding the MS Oliva spill in the south Atlantic.

Latest information about clean-up efforts can be found here.

SANCCOB is preparing and leading a team that will work to rescue and clean the oiled birds.

We’ll provide more information as it becomes available.


MS Oliva Oil Spill, Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic

Hello Everyone,

Today we wanted to blog about the disaster that is unfolding in the South Atlantic Ocean.  On March 16th, 2011 the Malta freighter MS Oliva ran aground on Nightingale Island (part of the Tristan da Cunha Islands) en route from Santos, Brazil to Singapore.  All 22 crewmembers were safely rescued, however the ship broke up two days later on March 18th, 2011.  The freighter is said to have been carrying 1,650 tons of heavy crude oil, as well as a full shipment of soya beans.

The MS Oliva breaking up on the rocks off of Nightingale Island. Picture by Sean Burns of the MV Edinburgh.

Tristan da Cunha is a remote volcanic group of islands, all of which are home to unique wildlife, some found nowhere else on earth.  Nightingale Island, in particular, is inhabited by the endangered Rockhopper penguin.  In addition to penguins, 3 species of albatross inhabit these islands (the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, the Sooty Albatross, and the Tristan Wandering Albatross), as well as Great Shearwaters (an endemic seabird of the Tristan group), petrels, skuas and terns, among other wildlife.

Nightingale Island in the south Atlantic.

There is no “ideal” place for an oil spill to occur, but if one were able to choose a location for an oil spill to NOT occur, the Tristan da Cunha Island group would be it.  These islands are true oceanic islands, located nearly halfway between South America and Africa, and 1,750 miles from the nearest land.  It takes 4-7 days for a boat to reach its shores from Cape Town, South Africa.  In the world of oil spills we often take for granted the proximity of resources (people, clean-up equipment, capture gear, rehabilitation centers) to the spills.  That is certainly one of the main challenges being faced with this particular oil spill.

Heavily oiled Rockhopper penguin. Photo by Simon Glass, Wayne Swain, and Matthew Green of the Tristan Conservation Team.

Reports coming in today claim that as many as 20,000 penguins are oiled, and treatment is scheduled to begin today (Tuesday, March 22).  Rescue workers plan to use an old fishing factory for cleaning and rehabilitation efforts.  As of yesterday (Monday, March 21), a salvage tug reached the wreck site and is beginning clean-up efforts.  Plans are currently being made to transport a team of specialists to assist the penguin cleaning and rehabilitation efforts on the island.  The OWCN is ready to provide any assistance, if necessary.

Oiled Rockhopper penguins. Photo by Simon Glass, Wayne Swain, and Matthew Green of the Tristan Conservation Team.

Please see the links below for more information and check back here for more updates.

– Becky and Kyra