Goukamma bouncing back after oil spill

The small Goukamma Nature Reserve and its marine protected area – just 65 square kilometres - is an unknown wildlife haven, located on the coast between Knysna and Sedgefield in the southern Cape.

But the photogenic reserve became the centre of attention on 9 August this year, when the 182-metre Kiani Satu cargo vessel ran aground in heavy seas just offshore of Goukamma’s pristine beaches.

The German-owned ship was carrying 15 000 tons of rice and 200 tons of fuel oil. About 50 tons of oil leaked out, blackening the beaches of the reserve and covering the ocean surface of the marine protected area, which extends 1 nautical mile offshore.

On 21  August, the vessel was towed 110 nautical miles out to sea and sunk in 1 000 metres of water. Fortunately, several storms passed through the area and heavy wave action broke up the oil on the beaches.

Recently I walked the coast of Goukamma with reserve manager Keith Spencer, to see what pollution remained. With us was Byron Elkington, the insurance assessor for the vessel’s owners.

Keith was consoled that a lot of the oil has disappeared already, mostly by natural processes, but also by the hardworking cleanup teams, who have collected several tons of oiled sand.

“When the oil first hit the beaches,” Keith said, “we could smell it on the shore. It was that sharp petrol-type smell that you get when filling up your car.”

“There was a line of black all along the beach, and we were expecting the worst. Fortunately, nature played along, and the stormy seas helped to clean the beaches.

According to Byron, the insurers of the vessel have paid for all cleaning and emergency operations, and will continue to do so. As he explained, there’s no limit to financial damages claimed from oil pollution.

But what of the marine protected area, and it’s pristine ocean life, including one of the healthiest spawning populations of red roman fish in the country? These territorial fish are slow growing, and their numbers outside of reserves have plummeted due to overfishing.

“Oil will sit on the surface of the ocean,” Keith said, “so it’s unlikely that any fish or subsurface marine life will suffer. But you never know what the long-term effects will be.”

The mouth of the Goukamma River was closed off with a boom to prevent oil from entering the estuary, and the river system was spared.

The oil didn’t only affect Goukamma. The currents carried the pollution 300 kms east to the Cape gannet nesting colony at Bird Island off Addo Elephant National Park. This is the world's largest Cape gannet colony, and one of only a few remaining. Nearby is the small St Croix island which is home to the largest colony of African penguins.

According to SANCCOB, 112 African penguins, 172 Cape gannets and one White-breasted cormorant were captured and admitted for cleaning. So far, 47 Cape gannets have been released back into the wild.

So while the insurers are ready to pay out for financial expenses incurred, what price the damage to endangered species like African penguins, Cape gannets and Red Roman fish? After all, they have a hard enough time as it is, regardless of oil spills.

Is it time for a sizeable fine to be imposed on the owners of the Kiani Satu to cover "the cost to nature", over and above any cleanup fee?  This money could be used to expand protected areas and train extra conservation staff.

As leading environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan suggests convincingly in his book "Wild Law", nature and our fellow species should have legal rights too, even if South African law doesn't currently acknowledge them.

For now, Goukamma is on the mend. I photographed several pairs of oystercatchers feeding in the rock pools, surely a sign that – for the most part – the reserve is back to it’s beautiful best.

To savour the area fully, visitors should walk the beaches or one of the many fynbos trails on the dunes, all the way to the gorgeous Groenvlei, a natural body of fresh water that has no inflowing or outflowing rivers.

One morning I borrowed the reserve’s little boat and drifted along the edges of Groenvlei. A pair of Cape clawless otters poked their noses above the surface, and a fish eagle swooped to land on one of the thousands of ancient milkwood trees.

Self-catering accommodation includes Mvubu Bush Lodge and Groenvlei Bush Camp, but the best is Fish Eagle Loft, a two-bed semi-luxury eyrie that has high views of the estuary, fynbos and ocean. Look out for southern-right whales cavorting beyond the breakers.

Goukamma was always deserving of more attention and recognition. Ironically, the oil spill from the Kiani Satu may just give it that.

Goukamma: tel 044-383-0042 or 0861-227-362-8873.

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