South Atlantic Oil Spill May Doom Endangered Penguins and Other Wildlife

A major spill of heavy fuel oil from a wrecked freighter has fouled the waters surrounding one of the world’s most important bird nesting sites on a remote South Atlantic island. On March 16, the Oliva, a Maltese-registered cargo vessel carrying a load of soybeans from Brazil to the Philippines, ran aground and sank off Nightingale Island. The island is part of the Tristan da Cunha Group—a British Overseas Territory and World Heritage Site. Shortly after the 22-man crew was rescued, the Oliva broke up and sank, releasing all or part of its 1,650-ton load of fuel oil into the pristine waters.

The remote island group is home to the second largest concentration of sea birds in the world. Over a million birds are estimated to breed on tiny Nightingale Island alone, including more than 100,000 pairs—nearly half of the global population—of northern rockhopper penguins, one of the world’s most threatened penguin species.

Trevor Glass, Director of Tristan da Cunha’s Department of Conservation, reported that in the days following the wreck, the 1.2-square-mile island was completely encircled by oil, and that half of the penguins emerging from the water were oil-covered. According to the International Bird Rescue Research Center, five days after the spill about 20,000 rockhopper penguins were “confirmed oiled.” Oiled seals were also observed, along with oiled albatrosses and other birds.

The Prince Albert II, an expedition ship that tours Antarctica, was one of two vessels in the area that witnessed the aftermath of the wreck and helped rescue the crew. The Ocean Foundation’s Dr. David Guggenheim, a guest lecturer aboard the Prince Albert II, observed the scene and said “If you had to pick the worst spot in the world to dump so much oil, this would be it.”

The Ocean Foundation has established a Nightingale Island Disaster Penguin and Seabird Rescue Fund to assist teams working to rescue and rehabilitate endangered penguins and other seabirds at Nightingale and nearby islands. To contribute and to obtain more information about the disaster, visit