The Sanko Harvest; the World’s Second Largest Diveable Ship Wreck

At 3.20am Thursday February 14th 1991, the vessel “Sanko Harvest” hit a reef approx. 10km south of Cape Le Grand in the Recherché Archipelago. The master of the Sanko Harvest, a 31 year old Korean, was navigating in dangerous waters outside the normal shipping channels.

The vessel was carrying 30,000 tonnes of superphosphate and dimononium phosphate fertiliser worth $10.5M.

Sanko Harvest

Also onboard were 570 tonnes of bunker fuel and 74 tonnes of mainly diesel fuel stored in the engine room.

“A small amount of oil was leaking” – it was reported.  An urgent request was sent for oil pollution equipment to be sent to Esperance and the state emergency transport plan was activated to move the equipment.

The report from Esperance Harbour Master Capt. Ian Harrod was that the ballast double bottoms 1, 2 ,3, and 4 on the port side, which run under the first four cargo holds, and the forepeak were holed.  Inner double bottoms under Hold 4, which contained fuel tanks, were also holed.  At this stage there was only a very small amount of oil leakage. Weather forecast was for worsening conditions.  Winds were SE and the ship was moving on the rocks.

A call was received from United Salvage (the only major Australian salvage company) to say their operator was on his way.  At this stage it was believed the Sanko Harvest could be salvaged, taken to Esperance and it’s cargo and bunkers unloaded.  Consideration was given to dumping 2000 tonnes of the cargo in a bid to refloat the vessel.  The cargo was intact, as no cargo holds had yet been damaged.  The State Combat committee met to discuss a contingency plan while officers from CALM and Marine & Harbours were flown to the site.  Booms were rigged up around the ship to contain the spill.

Friday 15th February 1991

Salvage operator indicates ship can be salvaged. By 8.00am the situation had deteriorated rapidly.  Ship movement on rocks was causing holes in Holds 1 & 4 resulting in cargo leaking into the ocean.  Salvage company determines no way can the Sanko Harvest be refloated and recommended the remaining oil be taken off ship.  This was impossible as there was no where to put the oil and the insurance companies would not allow another ship into this area as it was too dangerous to navigate.

Fuel oil is a heavy liquid that solidifies in the cold conditions and would need to be heated before it could be removed from the ship.  An impossible task!  Rocks had now pierced the fuel tanks under Hold 4 and the hold itself.  At this stage it was impossible to determine how much oil had been lost or might be lost.  The only possible option was a request to Canberra for inflatable bags to retain the oil. However, this hope was dashed when the closest source was New Zealand.

The weather conditions had caused the vessel to change from a 5° port list to a 5° starboard list with the bow under water by about 1 metre.  At 5.00pm the ship was abandoned.  Nothing except the crew and shipping documents were taken off.  Heavy seas were breaking over the bow; extra booms were rigged around the vessel so that the spill could be treated with dispersant as it hit the water.  Due to the rough seas these had little effect. Authorities expected the ship to sink overnight.

Saturday 16th February 1991

A CALM plane flew over the area and determined the ship to be still aground.  Oil was leaking from the reef side preventing access to it.  The wind was now 30 knots and the salvage crew was only taking preventative measures.  By mid afternoon, Marine & Harbours were able to pump dispersant into Hold 4 from a vessel alongside.  By this time, 18,000 tonnes of phosphate had been lost and the remaining 12,000 tonnes was going fast.  Most of the oil had been lost but with the prevailing winds nothing could be done except treat it with dispersant.

Sunday 17th February 1991

The Sanko Harvest has settled further onto rocks.  The first of the oil had reached wildlife on nearby Hood Island. A CALM team travelled to Hood Island to begin treating 20 fur seal pups covered in oil.  The helicopter sprayed dispersant around the ship as the vessel could no longer be approached by sea.  Civil Aviation Authority restricted access to the area as small low flying aircraft were scaring the seals.  An exclusion order was put on the vessel, the reef and Hood Island to prevent upset locals from boarding the vessel to try and remove the polluting oil.

At about 3.00pm the Ship started to slide off the rocks.  It was too rough for the tug to go out.  Within hours the ships bow was on the bottom of ocean.  Only one cargo hold remained intact.  Oil was spilling into the ocean and the helicopter sprayed more dispersant.

Monday 18th February 1991

Sometime overnight the ship split in two and sank.  The hatch on the remaining cargo lifted off so all 30,000 tonnes of cargo and any remaining oil or fuel was lost.  Only the 100 tonnes of oil sealed in the engine room remained intact.

Clean-Up

CALM had over 200 volunteers ready and willing to help the clean up.  Esperance Shire Council also had many volunteers and almost every local person, including school children, helped in some way with the clean up.  It took around 10 weeks and the total bill came to over $1m. 5,000 x 15kg bags of oil soaked sand and hundreds of 20 litre drums of oil were removed from the beaches and islands. High-pressure hoses were used to disperse heavier slick from the rocky shorelines. The Sanko Line, Japanese owners of the Sanko Harvest, paid $1m for the clean-up bill. They also donated $50,000 to the Dept CALM for seal monitoring after the clean-up, $4500 to Local Environmental Action Forum (LEAF) to establish an environmental centre and one of the lifeboats salvaged from the wreck was donated to the Esperance Museum.

Wildlife Threatened

50 newborn NZ fur seals on Hood Island and about 150 others found in a colony about 40km from the wreck brought the total seals affected to 200.  The young seals were terrified and stunned but responded well to treatment.   Some could suffer permanent eye damage. Unfortunately 6 pups died from the oil on their skin before they could be returned to their home.

Kangaroos were also affected.  Some were found with oil on their tails, back legs and paws after standing in the oil while drinking from fresh water creeks in the Cape Le Grand National Park.  They were not a big problem as most had been cleaning themselves by rolling in the sand and removing what they could.  Pacific gulls and other birds were found either struggling in the water or washed up on the beach.  Only a few were found dead and treatment of the injured birds was successful.  Some required feather-by-feather cleaning.

Beaches And Islands

30 km to the east and west of Esperance were partly or completely covered in oil.  Nearly 25km of once pure white sand on Cape Le Grand National Park had turned black.  Twilight Cove to the west of Esperance and as far as Bremer Bay had some signs of oil damage to beaches.  Oil on beaches had to be picked up and carted away for disposal.  Beach rocks and the islands had to be scrubbed with dispersant.

Marine Sanctuary

Some good has come from the wrecking of the Sanko Harvest.  The wreck site is now a declared Marine Sanctuary with all marine life within 500m of the wreck being protected from spear fishing.  With a length of 174.7m and a beam of 27.3m it is the largest diveable wreck off the Australian coast. The highest point is just 13m below the water, the deepest about 42m. People come from as far away as Japan to dive on it.