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Sea Shepherd’s Oil Spill Rescue History



 1998 October - Germany

Freighter Pallas

The Island of Föhr on the border between Germany and Denmark


freighter Pallas agroundRuptured freighter Pallas caught fire and ran aground on a sand bank 11 kilometers south of the island of Amrum near Germany’s Shallows National Park. The crew abandoned ship and awaited rescue by the Danish Coast Guard. One sailor did not make it. Several attempts were made to extinguish the fire and take the vessel under tow. The salvage firms made mistakes and the responsible government authorities took no action. As a result, the hull eventually broke open and heavy oil flowed from the ship’s tanks into the North Sea.

The Pallas disaster was the worst ever to befall these waters – these shallows are a particularly sensitive ecosystem, hence the designation of a National Park here. Small amounts of oil can inflict incredible damage. The only colony of Cone seals to be found between Belgium and Sweden is a close distance from Amrum. Many species of threatened seabirds also live in this area.

It took nine days after the fire broke out for the Maritime Authorities to mount a crisis management response!

Sea Shepherd’s Rescue:

While the authorities debated and pondered, Sea Shepherd Germany immediately responded to the first news of the disaster. Volunteers were assembled, and contact was made with an animal protection group on the island of Föhr. Sea Shepherd took medicines, syringes, blankets, warming lamps, tools, and other equipment to the island. Relief supplies worth 20,000 Deutschmarks went by rail, private car, and public transport. Once on the island, Sea Shepherd set up bus transportation for the stricken birds from the beach to the large garage of the fire station where the birds were cleaned and laid on straw or shavings under heat lamps where the shivering animals recovered.

Sea Shepherd volunteerEquipped with searchlights and night-vision equipment, Sea Shepherd activists scoured the dunes at night, during high tide and at temperatures that ranged down to ten degrees below freezing, looking for victims. Another search group was assembled for the day and a third to oversee the care of the birds at the rescue stations.

The success was better than 80% in the first weeks, when the water was relatively warm (not yet freezing). Together with the Föhr animal protection activists, about 1,000 birds were rescued within the first month. Most birds needed treatment with charcoal tablets and electrolytes for ingestion of heavy oil.

Despite the challenges of finding and rehabilitating the victims, Sea Shepherd had another major battle – contending with the German Army and other wildlife organization’s approach to the disaster. Response units arrived with orders to kill any contaminated birds they found and thousands of birds were batted around the head and left for dead. Sea Shepherd witnessed many healthy birds being killed senselessly.

Many birds were migrating in from Iceland, Greenland, and Siberia. By December 5, 10,000 birds had died and 20,000 were contaminated and expected to have died within a couple of days.

The efforts of Sea Shepherd and Föhr animal protection along with hundreds of volunteers was a tremendous effort. Thousands of birds were rescued and cleaned, transported in large cushioned boxes, tagged and set free, far from the oiled waters around Amrum.




 1999 December - Turkey

Russian Tanker Volgoneft 248

Bosporus Strait, off Turkey


A Russian tanker Volgoneft 248 broke into pieces, spilling 900 tons of gasoline into the Marmara Sea and threatening marine life and fragile ecosystems.

Sea Shepherd’s Rescue: Sea Shepherd Europe volunteers flew to Istanbul to help authorities rescue wildlife with encouragement from the Turkish Government. International volunteer teams were assembled to rescue and transport oiled migrating seabirds from the spill to care centers.




 1999 December - France

Oil tanker Erika

France, Breton coast of France

Sea Shepherd’s Operation Oilstorm Y2K


The Maltese-registered oil tanker Erika broke in two in heavy seas while transporting eight million gallons of heavy diesel oil, spilling nearly half of its cargo into the sea.

The spill fouled the beaches of France. Dozens of Sea Shepherd volunteers worked for weeks to clean oil-soaked birds.

Efforts by specialized oil recovery ships were severely restricted by winds as high as 85mph, giant waves, and the viscosity of the oil, which resembled “chewing gum.” Oil began arriving on the coast on Christmas Day and by December 26, more than 6000 seabirds had been found dead along the coast.

Sea Shepherd’s Rescue:

On December 26, Sea Shepherd launched an emergency direct action campaign.

The campaign called Operation Oilstorm Y2K focused on the rescue, transport, and treatment for oil-contaminated seals, seabirds, and other marine wildlife exposed to the oil.

Erika oil spillVolunteers from across Europe, the US, Canada, and Mexico joined the Sea Shepherd operation group over the next few days. They partnered with world-renowned Pieterburen Seal and Bird Stations in the Netherlands and an associated bird-care center for the duration of the operation to assure that the best rescue and care facilities in the world worked together to save wildlife caught in the disaster. The holiday period made it difficult to arrange logistical support and equipment, but coastal fisherman, residents, tourists, and schoolchildren worked tirelessly alongside the French Army and Wildlife teams to save as much wildlife as possible.

On December 30, Sea Shepherd negotiated with Air France to fly in wildlife oil disaster experts from Tri-State Bird Rescue in Delaware and International Bird Research Center in San Francisco.

Sea Shepherd Europe’s final efforts were assisting in the grim, final task of disposing of the bodies of the estimated 340,000 seabirds that perished in the Erika spill.




 2000 January - Rio de Janeiro

Petrobras Oil Co pipeline rupture

Guanabara Bay near Rio De Janeiro.


A ruptured pipeline sent more than 300,000 gallons of crude oil into Guanabara Bay and surrounding fragile mangrove swamps.

Sea Shepherd’s Rescue:

Instituto Sea Shepherd Brasil (ISSB) was called on by Brazilian State Oil company Petrobras to fly in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation experts from other South American countries, the United States, and Australia.

ISSB agreed to coordinate marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation efforts at the spill, draft a contingency plan, and create a training program for oiled wildlife rescue:

Sea Shepherd stepped in again in July 2000, when the rapture of another pipeline leaked more than a million gallons into a tributary of the Iguacu River in Parana State.


“This is the first time a contingency plan and oiled wildlife rescue program has ever been formulated in Brasil…….we are breaking new ground.”  - ISSB president Daniel Vairo




 2001 January - Galapagos Islands

Tanker Jessica

Wreck Bay, off San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.


Jessica tankerThe Ecuadorian-registered tanker Jessica struck a reef in the ecologically significant Galapagos Islands.

The boat contained 160,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and 80,000 gallons of heavier, more environmentally hazardous bunker fuel, threatening to cause significant and irreversible damage to the pristine Marine Reserve.

The Sea Shepherd patrol boat Sirenian was the first vessel on the scene. At this stage the Jessica’s single-hulled skin had not burst but it was only a matter of hours before the hull would be punctured.

The Galapagos National Park director called immediately for help from the US Coast Guard. While the Sea Shepherd crew waited for it to arrive, they agreed with the rangers that it was imperative to begin pumping out the fuel. But before they could get started, a local official informed them that the oil was the private property of Petroecuador, and any attempt to remove it would be considered theft by both the Ecuadoran Navy and Petroecuador.

It was 4 days until the US Coast Guard arrived (the delay mainly due to negotiations over the cost) and by this time the hull had been punctured and the irreversible damage began to take hold. It was not long before the first endangered lave gull was spotted, beating its wings as it attempted to escape from the “lethal glue.”

Sean and USCGSea Shepherd’s Rescue:

The Sea Shepherd patrol boat Sirenian was the first vessel on the scene of the Jessica oil spill and our volunteers spent weeks rescuing and cleaning oil soaked birds, seals, and marine iguanas. Oil spills need to be prevented at all costs, and if they do happen, specialized teams need to be assembled at the scene immediately.


“The world does not take the threat of oil spills seriously. If we did, we would have been prepared. In fact, the world has never been prepared.” Paul Watson




 2005 September - Galapagos Islands

Galapagos Explorer

Academy Bay at Porto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.


Tourist dive boat Galapagos Explorer began taking on water late on Wednesday, September 14. The ship sank at around 0100 hours on September 15. The crew and all sixteen passengers escaped unharmed. The ship had three diesel tanks and it is unknown how much fuel leaked from the wreck. The valves on the tanks were secured to stop the flow of diesel seeping out and the tanks were eventually raised and taken to shore.

Sea Shepherd’s Rescue:

The volunteer crew of the Farley Mowat and the locally based Sirenian worked rescuing and cleaning birds, iguanas, and other marine species impacted by the diesel spill.

The Galapagos National Park supplied the oil absorbing rags and the Charles Darwin Research Centre provided bottles to collect water samples.

Sea Shepherd divers recovered about 500-feet of mooring line around the wreck that presented a threat to wildlife. They also recovered floating debris.

An oil boom was deployed around the Galapagos Explorer to contain the spill.

Due to the quick response of the Sea Shepherd’s actions, the wildlife loss was minimal.


“The Sea Shepherd endorses tourism in the Galapagos as long as efforts are taken to preserve the ecological system as much as possible…. We would like to see the Galapagos uninhabited and left to the creatures of the wild, but the reality is that some 25,000 people are living there, and more and more people are coming every week..” Paul Watson, Founder and President of Sea Shepherd