Oiling of the species (adapted from Time Magazine, Feb 5,2001.)


     On an ecologist’s list of nightmares, this one looked like an easy member of the top five. An Ecuadorian fuel tanker, the Jessica, ran aground in the Galapagos Archipelago and slowly spilled its cargo of 240.000 gal of fuel oil into the surrounding ocean. Not only did the disaster threaten to choke a unique and delicate habitat, it threatened the very place which inspired Charles Darwin’s “the origin of Species” in 1859.
     Fortunately as the week passed scientists started thinking the situation was not as catastrophic as originally established. Robert Bensted-Smith, director of the Darwin research station wrote he was confident the full ecosystem would finally recover entirely.
Of course he could very well be a little too optimistic.
     The emergency began when the captain of the Jessica, a 30 year old boat owned by the company Acotramar, mistook a buoy for a lighthouse and ran aground off the shore of San Cristobal Island on the night of Jan.16. Rescue teams from the Ecuadorian navy and the fuel company began removing fuel from the damaged vessel, but after 3 days of battering by waves up to 2 meters in height, Jessica began leaking hydrocarbons into the sea. it became Ecuador’s worse fuel catastrophy ever.
     Meanwhile the island’s large scientific community went on red alert. Calls went out to scientists in the U.S and South Africa who had experienced with similar disasters. Eventually,Ecuador’s government hired 10 technical experts from U.S agencies to deal with the spill, and Germany and France also sent help.Scientists feared the petrol would reach the shores of the islands.Santa-Fe island, home of a large colony of sea-lions was a particular concern, as were the delicate mangroves of Santa-Cruz. Floating oil could kill wildlife by coating their fur and feathers, by cutting off sunlight in the water and thus destroy the food chain at its very start.
     As the oil spill spread the rescuers started gathering fuel by hand and in tubs. A cleaning station for sea lions, pelicans and gulls was also created. They gave priority to sea lion pups which they bathed in tiny tubs using sterile solutions. However, nothing could be done for sea creatures and seaweed near the tanker.Then mother nature started helping as ocean winds and currents that would normally flow west shifted north, carrying the oil away from shore lines and into deep ocean.
The strong tropical sun also helped by evaporating fuel on the sea surface.
The oil spill is only one of the many threats to the Galapagos. Though the archipelago has been a National Park since 1959 it is more and more crowded with tourists and Ecuadorians looking for jobs. Fishing has depleted populations of lobsters and sea cucumbers. Ecologists still have plenty of reasons to go sleepless.