On Saturday night May 23rd the Peruvian navy training ship the Mollendo ran aground in Academy Bay, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos. The Mollendo, a 153-meter ship, had been given special permission from President Correa to enter the Galapagos National Park for training purposes. With this permission the president overruled the Galapagos National Park Service, who had denied entry to this ship. The reason for denial by the Park was that they carry bunker fuel, which is absolutely prohibited inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve. It is unknown why the President would give such permission despite strict Park regulations. Apparently, the exercises are part of a cultural exchange between Ecuador and Peru.
Unconfirmed sources report that the Mollendo carries 24,000 gallons of bunker fuel and 200,000 gallons of diesel.
A requirement for any foreign vessel or any vessel without knowledge of these waters is to have a local pilot on board. The Port Captain of Santa Cruz personally went on board and was actually at the helm of the Mollendo when it ran aground. Taking a ship of that size so close to shore in an area that is known for it's reefs is unheard of in the Galapagos.
On Sunday, the National Park together with the Ecuadorian navy, environmental police and the cargo ship Angelina used the high tide to pull the ship free. Oil booms were deployed in case the hull would suffer damage and fuel leak out. After about one hour of pulling at 13.45 pm the Mollendo started moving away until it was finally free floating at 14.00 pm. It is unknown how bad the damage to the reef is. The ship was either very close or on top of a reef that has a fair number of white tip sharks.
Presently the ship is sitting at anchor at a safe distance while damages to the vessel are being assessed.
To this point, the ship has not leaked any fuel. The consequences of such a spill would have been catastrophic as the entire bay would have been flooded with bunker fuel destroying mangroves and most of the life present. Credit goes to all parties involved with the refloating operation to help prevent this damage from happening.
There is no adequate disaster plan in the Galapagos to deal with situations like these, even after the Jessica oil spill in January 2001 off San Cristobal Island. The oil booms the National Park has at their disposal are not only too short, 300 meters to cover a 153 meter vessel, they are also insufficient for a disaster of this magnitude.
UNESCO should see no reason to remove the Galapagos Islands from the endangered list unless strict measures are taken to prevent these situations from happening.
Navy Ship Mollendo runs aground in the Galapagos, Credit: Sea Shepherd Galapagos