The Everyday Heroes of the Mauritius Oil Spill
By Pawnee Simons
Tropical paradise. Ten seconds.
What comes to mind?
If you are like me, beautiful beaches, palm trees, and bright clear water come to mind. How about snorkeling over the reef? Seeing tiny fish in brilliant colors darting here and there?
Coming to shore and seeing. . . Is that a pink pigeon? And a sea turtle? Wait, was that a pod of dolphins? What kind of flower is that? Have you ever seen water so clear?
See it? The turquoise water close to shore. The shift to blue beyond the reef. That point where you can’t tell the ocean from the sky.
Feel it? The sand beneath your toes, water gently lapping at your ankles? The soft salty breeze tugging at your hair?
Hear it? Full of sound and life but not the rushed stressful people sounds of the city. Here the ocean keeps a steady rhythm and all nature joins in the song. Birds call and insects sing.
Are you there? Now imagine this paradise is your home. What would you do to save it? How would you react if everything you held dear was being threatened?
Imagine for a moment going to your favorite kitesurfing spot. You look out over what is usually an uninterrupted teal blue sea, only to find a big blot on your horizon. There on the reef is a massive ship, clearly stuck. Your stomach drops and you feel a rising sense of dread.
For two weeks you go to the beach and continue to see this ship blot your picture-perfect view. Each day the ship tilts a little more. Troubled waters cause delays in moving the ship. And the wind says trouble is just beginning.
Then one day it happens. A wave cracks the hull. You stand horrified on the beach and watch a vein of inky black oil seeping from the ship. It snakes through the water toward your island. Toward your home. Promising, promising death.
Time is of the essence. Go!
What do you do? How do you react and why?
Disaster in Paradise: Mauritius Oil Spill
This is the exact situation that the island nation of Mauritius faced last summer. And the people of this little known spot in the Indian Ocean went above and far beyond to save their home. To save their paradise.
Cause of the Mauritius Oil Spill
On July 25, 2020, the MV Wakashio, a bulk cargo ship, ran aground on a coral reef off the Southeast coast of Mauritius. The Japanese owned vessel was headed to Brazil from Asia and was reported to have been carrying roughly 200 tons of diesel and nearly 4000 tons of fuel oil.
Attempts to remove the ship and to put out booms to catch possible oil were hampered by bad weather and rough seas. Then, on August 6th, 2020, a crack formed in the hull of the ship, and oil began leaking into the pristine waters. On August 7th, the government of Mauritius declared a national state of emergency as an estimated 1000 tons of oil escaped the hull of the ship.
Where in the World Is Mauritius?
Mauritius is an island nation located in the Indian Ocean approximately a thousand miles east of Madagascar off the southeastern coast of Africa. It is a subtropical island country and includes several small islands in its territories.
The main island of Mauritius is surrounded by coral reefs and has sandy beaches as well as fertile planes and a variety of landscapes that range from sandy beaches to Rocky mountains.
What Makes This Oil Spill So Bad?
It should go without saying that any oil spill is a big deal. The impact on the environment is huge and long-lasting. This spill, however, raises some large and specific concerns.
Mauritius’ location as a biodiversity hotspot makes this oil spill particularly damaging. This spill has taken place near the Blue By Marine Park reserve, an internationally important wetland. Along with this Blue Bay Marine Park are two protected marine ecosystems.
The Marine environment around Mauritius is home to some 1,700 species that include 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals, and two species of turtles. The coral reefs, seagrasses, and mangroves are also extremely rich in biodiversity. There are also wetland areas that are home to a large variety of rare birds and reptiles.
It isn’t just that these waters and wetlands are home to so many plants and animals or that those ecosystems are so interconnected that the spill will impact every part of it. There is also a huge impact on human lives as well. Mauritius is heavily dependent on tourism and fishing for economic support.
All at once, the once flourishing island is facing some serious challenges of survival. Plant and animal alike.
Not on Our Island: The People of Mauritius to the Rescue
Back to your beach, what do you do? The oil is so thick you bend down and scoop it up in your hands. It coats your gloves in sticky black. A rancid, chemical smell sits in the air. It makes your chest heavy and breathing difficult. This mangrove is contaminated.
But still the question: How do you fight such an odd foe?
The answer, any and every way possible.
The people of Mauritius all jumped in to help contain and clean up this spill. In one weekend they made nearly 80 kilometers of makeshift ocean booms to contain the oil. Booms are long snake-like devices that float on the water to contain/absorb oil so it can be removed. Hopefully, before it reaches the shore.
Most of the booms, made by volunteers, were made out of waste from processing sugar cane. Leftover leaves were stuffed into nets around plastic bottles to make the booms float. Anchors were also attached to hold the booms in place.
Are you helping with the cleanup? Sorting through bottles to help booms float. Or maybe sewing them together. Working with a large group to carry one to the water. Did you even stop to ask if you were allowed?
Permission or Not
Actions taken by the Mauritians directly went against the orders of the government who asked them to allow authorities to handle the clean-up. Is there a time when civil disobedience is more warranted? Would you have the nerve to show up and help anyway?
Sunil Dawankasing, a former Mauritius Government Minister, told one news crew that “Civil society have taken over the state in this endeavor to try and mitigate the spillage.” Citizens quietly doing what needs to be done, even without permission.
“You don’t want to feel helpless in this kind of situation,” said Hans Dawoor who is from Mauritius but lives in Canada. He was visiting his brother when the spill happened and quickly joined thousands of other volunteers in the attempt to keep the oil from reaching the shore.
Helping Clean Oil Spills From Near and Far
Other Mauritians living in Canada did feel helpless to be so far away but did not allow it to inhibit them. They went online to raise money to send a skimmer. A machine that collects oil from the surface of the water.
Any newscast from August on the topic will show volunteers doing any and all they can to fight the oil. Actions including but not limited to:
- Countless people making booms
- Lines of people carrying booms to the water People on beaches with buckets and shovels, collecting oil
- Bald heads as some even cut their own hair to put in the booms to absorb the oil
- Fishermen in what are clearly private boats scooping oil off of the water
What Can We Do?
What can we take from the example of these everyday people? What lessons can we learn from this little Island and their response to disaster? There are so many things but here are just a few:
Stand up for the Environment
The people of Mauritius were already caring for their environment. The high number of reserves in the area attest to that. After the spill, they are also doing more such as:
- Demanding reparations
- Calling for ships to stay further way
- Calling for tighter maritime regulations
We too can stand up for the earth where we live. What are our issues? Know and be involved in them. Make those issues known. Use the internet and social media to spread awareness and to organize help.
Act Now Investigate Later
Sometimes we want to know all the reasons for a problem before we jump in and work to fix it. And often we waste precious time arguing over blame. We need to act now to save the world.
We may not be responsible for the problem but we can be part of the solution.
Feeling stuck due to world conditions? Donate to projects like Ocean Blue and be part of the solution even if you are stuck at home.
Ask for Help With the Work
Mauritius asked for help and then went to work. When help came they accepted it but the help found them working.
75% of the spilled oil was cleaned up in the first week mainly due to volunteer efforts.
We don’t have to be helpless. Start by doing little things to make a difference in the world. Explore ways to start here.
Be Determined to Survive: Decide to Get Past Any Obstacle.
There are answers and solutions if we look. The people of Mauritius used whatever material available. Including leaves and hair. Innovate when and where necessary.
Be frustrated but also be working on solutions. Video after video the people of Mauritius admit to being angry and frustrated, but they do not let that stop them from finding solutions.
Never give up. Humans can be one of the least resilient groups because of the feelings of hopelessness. Don’t feed into that. Don’t give up and declare it gone without a fight. A great big fight.
Believe paradise can be saved. It would have been easy to give up before they even began, but this little island came together to fight for their home. And so can we.
There is Always Hope
In December 2020 Blue Bay Marine Park reserve was opened back up. There is always a reason to hope for better. Things don’t get better overnight but they can and will get better if we hold onto hope.
We cannot always anticipate the disasters that come into our lives. This last year has been a huge example of that. We can, however, choose how we respond to those disasters when they come. It is possible to come together like the people of Mauritius and save what we love. We can stand up for what’s right and act when it is needed.
Take a breath and go back to your beach. It is not the same but it is not gone either. There will be scars. But the waves still crash and the wind still blows.
The birds are further away and some of the flowers are gone, even though it is their season. Time is healing them, slowly. And though it is difficult right now, nature is resilient and, if we give it a little help, paradise will return.
Author Bio: Pawnee Simons is a freelance copywriter, living in Utah, who wants to save the world so she can see it all.