A sunken ship’s trail of destruction: turtle carcasses, dead dolphins

Colombo, Sri Lanka— Nearly 100 carcasses of turtles with throat and shell damage, as well as a dozen dead dolphins and a blue whale, have washed ashore in Sri Lanka since a container ship burnt and sank, raising fears of a severe marine disaster.

Ecologists believe the deaths were directly caused by the fire and release of hazardous chemicals while the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl burnt for 12 days and sank last week off Sri Lanka’s main port in the capital Colombo. Government officials, however, said these causes were “provisionally” confirmed and the investigation was continuing.

A month after it caught fire, the MV X-Press Pearl is suspected of unleashing an environmental disaster.Credit:AP

The fire started on the ship on May 20 and dead marine species started washing ashore days later.

Flaming containers filled with chemicals tumbled into the sea from the ship’s deck as emergency crews sought to contain the blaze over the ensuing two weeks.

A ship manifest seen by The Associated Press said 81 of the ship’s nearly 1500 containers held “dangerous” goods.

Sri Lankan navy soldiers walk on the beach looking for plastic debris washed ashore from fire damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda, on the outskirts of Colombo.Credit:AP

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, most of which was destroyed in the fire. But debris including burnt fibreglass and tonnes of plastic pellets have severely polluted the surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation’s famed beaches. Photos from the country’s coast guard showed a layer of green film blanketing the ocean surrounding the vessel.

Post-mortem analysis on the carcasses are being performed at five government-run laboratories and separately by the Government Analysts Department, said an official of the wildlife department who spoke on condition of anonymity as the official was not authorised to speak to the media.

“Provisionally, we can say that these deaths were caused by two methods — one is due to burns from the heat and secondly due to chemicals. These are obvious,” said Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the Environment Ministry.

He refrained from giving an exact cause, saying “post-mortem analysis are still being conducted”.

The burnt MV X-Press Pearl sinks off Colombo port, Sri Lanka.Credit:Sri Lanka Navy/AP

Thushan Kapurusinghe of the Turtle Conservation Project blamed the fire and chemicals the ship carried for killing the turtles.

With more than three decades experience on turtle conservation, Kapurusinghe said the dead turtles had oral, cloacal and throat bleeding and “specific parts of their carapace have burns and erosion signs”.

The sea off Sri Lanka and its coastline are home to five species of turtles that regularly come to lay eggs. March to June is the peak season for turtle arrivals.

“What is happening right now is unnatural,” said Muditha Katuwawala of Pearl Protectors, a Sri Lankan marine conservation organisation. He expressed concern at the number of reported wildlife fatalities since the ship caught fire. “This is definitely far beyond any number that we’ve ever seen.”

“These turtles always return back to our shores to lay their eggs,” he said. “When they return and this is the homecoming, that’s actually quite sad.”

While dead animals sometimes wash ashore, especially when Sri Lanka’s monsoon season causes rough seas, the increased number of reported deaths indicate a link to the ship, conservationists said.

The United Nations on Saturday warned the disaster could have devastating consequences.

“An environmental emergency of this nature causes significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances into the ecosystem,” said UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. “This, in turn, threatens lives and livelihoods of the population in the coastal areas.”

Lalith Ekanayake, a marine and coastal ecologist, suspects, based on the nature of the fire and amount of chemicals, that “at least 400 turtles may have died and their carcasses may have sunk in the sea or drifted to the deep sea”.

Sri Lanka plans to claim compensation from X-Press Feeders, the ship’s owner, and already have submitted an interim claim of $US40 million ($53 million).

AP, Reuters, Washington Post

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