• AFP-JIJI, REUTERS

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Data from a maritime analysis firm showed that the Wakashio diverted more than 100 km from a regular shipping lane before crashing into the reef.

The MV Wakashio, owned by Nagashiki Shipping and chartered by Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd., struck a coral reef on Mauritius’s southeast coast on July 25 and later began leaking oil. The iron-ore carrier was using a well-traveled shipping lane that passes near Mauritius when the accident happened, according to maritime analysis firm Windward and shipping sources.

It appears to have deviated from that lane about 55 nautical miles (102 km) from Mauritius and headed straight for the Indian Ocean island, the data showed. The data shows the ship’s track during the last few hours of its journey, including a minor turn after crossing into the nation’s territorial waters.

“It was on a very bad trajectory,” Omer Primor, Windward’s head of marketing, told Reuters.

It was not immediately clear why the ship appeared to deviate from its course. Tracking data for other cargo vessels passing close to Mauritius recently show them all sticking to the shipping lane.

The coast guard of Mauritius had repeatedly tried to reach the ship to warn it that its course was dangerous but received no reply, Reuters reported this week.

When asked about the Windward data, a Nagashiki Shipping spokesman said: “We have submitted our route record data to the police, but we cannot comment on the data, as the police are investigating the incident.”

The company has declined to comment on the report that the coast guard had tried to contact the ship. A spokesman at Mitsui OSK said it was also investigating the carrier’s course. He declined to comment further.

One regional maritime official said Automatic Identification Systems data he had seen did not show the ship’s turn inside Mauritius’ territorial waters, but added that it could be because of an inaccuracy in AIS data.

The government of Mauritius and maritime authorities there did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the data.

The plan to scuttle the ship, which was announced a day earlier, had raised alarm from environmentalists worried about the nation taking further damage from the accident after more than 1,000 tons of fuel oil leaked.

Scientists say that the full impact of the spill is still unfolding but that the damage could affect Mauritius and its tourism-dependent economy for decades.

The wildlife at risk include the seagrasses blanketing sand in the shallow waters, clownfish living in coral reefs, mangrove systems, and the critically endangered Pink Pigeon, endemic to the island.

A satellite image shows tug boats and the broken bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which hit a coral reef on July 25, causing an oil spill off Pointe d'Esny, Mauritius. | SATELLITE IMAGE ©2020 MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
A satellite image shows tug boats and the broken bulk carrier MV Wakashio, which hit a coral reef on July 25, causing an oil spill off Pointe d’Esny, Mauritius. | SATELLITE IMAGE ©2020 MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Salvage crews on Thursday began the process of sinking the broken stem of a Japanese-owned ship that ran aground off Mauritius, leading to a major oil spill and ecological disaster for the Indian Ocean island.

The MV Wakashio broke into two on Sunday after a race against the clock to pump all the remaining oil off the bulk carrier, which ran aground last month and began leaking black fuel into idyllic waters full of marine life.

Two tugboats towed the larger part of the wreck some 15 km (9 miles) out into the open ocean, where it is being sunk to a depth of 3,180 meters. The smaller section remains wedged on the coral reef where the shipwreck occurred.

“The scuttling of the Wakashio is underway,” according to a statement from the fishing ministry.

A statement from the national crisis committee confirmed that the sinking of the boat had begun at around 4 p.m. local time (1200 GMT).

“The chief salvage master assured that all the hydraulic oil as well as floating debris has been removed from the vessel.”

Authorities said that the location of the sinking had been decided upon after widespread consultation with different experts and conservationists.

“Now it will be filled with sea water to sink it to the bottom,” Mauritius’s shipping director Alain Donat said, adding that it could take hours for it to descend.

Happy Khambule of Greenpeace Africa said in a statement that sinking the vessel was the worst option.

“Sinking this vessel would risk biodiversity and contaminate the ocean with large quantities of heavy metal toxins, threatening other areas as well, notably the French island of La Reunion,” he said.

“Mauritians had nothing to gain from the MV Wakashio crossing their waters and are now asked to pay the price of this disaster. More pollution further risks their tourist-based economy and fish-based food security.”

Over 1,000 tons of oil have spilled into the pristine waters that have long been a major draw for honeymooners and contain precious mangroves and coral reefs.

Japan has sent teams of experts to assist in the cleanup, while others have been dispatched from France and Britain to aid the archipelago.

The captain of the ship and his second-in-command were arrested on Tuesday, though officials have yet to reveal why the ship, which was making its way from Singapore to Brazil, came so close to the island.

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