Fighting on the beaches: Mauritius rallies after oil spill

© Agence France-Presse

All-hands emergency: People scoop up oil at Bambous Virieux beach

Mahébourg (Mauritius) (AFP) - The stench of oil from the grounded ship was overwhelming and Vikash Tatayah's eyes stung as he mopped up the sludge lapping the unspoiled Mauritian shoreline that he has spent his life protecting. 

"It was uncomfortable to breathe," Tatayah, director for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, told AFP of the devastating scene at Ile aux Aigrettes -- a wildlife haven facing a direct hit from the oil spill that has struck the island's southeast.

"Your eyes burned up, people were getting dry skin and lips. It was difficult of course because we had the stench of petroleum in the air, but we just got on with it."

People on the Indian Ocean archipelago rallied after a huge cargo ship ran aground on July 25 and began leaking fuel into picture-postcard seas, threatening a catastrophe. 

More than 1,000 tonnes have spewed from the MV Wakashio, befouling coral reefs, lagoons and mangroves that sustain Mauritius' global reputation as an ecotourism hub. 

"The seafarers' relationship with this coast is so deep that it's a tragedy. I've seen people from every town in Mauritius with tears in their eyes," said David Sauvage, an activist with the Rezistans ek Alternativ environment group.

In the days following the spill last week, salvage crews have battled poor weather and dangerous conditions to extract the remaining 4,000 tonnes of fuel from the Japanese-owned ship before it splits in two.

Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth on Thursday announced that all the fuel left in the tanks had been pumped out, although about 100 tonnes more was still elsewhere aboard the vessel.

"It was a race against the clock, and I salute the excellent work to prevent another oil spill," said Jugnauth. 

  • 'New Mauritian spirit' - 

The 13-year-old bulk carrier, which was otherwise empty at the time of the grounding, is 300 metres (984 feet) long -- if placed on its stern, the height of the Eiffel Tower -- with a laden weight of 203,000 tonnes.

Thousands of Mauritians have sprung into action, marshalling along the shoreline day after day to fight the tide threatening their land, their health and their livelihoods.

Volunteers have ignored government orders to stay away and dived headfirst into a clean-up drive to save the immaculate coastline.

Kilometres (miles) of floating plastic barriers stuffed with straw and fixed with empty bottles have been stitched together into chains and placed at sea in an effort to hold back the oily tide. 

"We stayed up all night to make this," said Sauvage of the improvised "booms" stitched by hand by volunteers squatted in the sand.

Mauritians clad in gumboots and rubber gloves, coated head-to-toe in treacly sludge, have scrubbed the shore, where in the distance the ship tilts perilously on its axis.

Human hair has been woven into nets to absorb the oil, with barbers offering free cuts at the shore to those donating their locks. 

Salons have collected their cuttings while a French NGO has promised to contribute 20 tonnes of hair to the cause.

"We are fighting on the beaches, we are fighting with all the resources we have as citizens," local MP Joanna Berenger, who cut her own hair in solidarity, told AFP, adding that one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of hair could absorb eight litres of oil (2.1 US gallons).

"Today we are fighting as one people and one nation... We are witnessing the birth of new Mauritian spirit."

'It was everywhere'

After the spill Tatayah raced to Ile aux Aigrettes, a protected wildlife sanctuary off the coast. 

His team had little protective gear early on, but could not risk delay.

"There was so much of it coming down that it was pointless trying to mop small patches. It was everywhere. We were right in the middle of it," he said.

There was a lot at stake.

Ile aux Aigrettes is an ecological treasure, boasting ancient plants and endangered species. 

Conservationists managed to evacuate a number of indigenous birds and plants -- "the rarest of the rare" -- but not all: a dead native green heron was found coated in black tar.

"This is 36 years, 40 years of our lives. So we’re pretty upset about it... We pride ourselves in our work. It becomes part of our DNA," he said.

There is anger too and many want to know why more wasn't done to anticipate this disaster.

"This government should have asked for help since day one," said Berenger.