This article was written for the Esperance Tide, a lovely local publication that I’ve been writing a column called ‘5 Minute History’ for.
In 1991, Esperance was the site of an ecological disaster that left white sandy beaches covered in black oil, seal pups and sea birds struggling for life as volunteers cleaned the oil off them, and the ocean green and cloudy from tonnes of fertiliser that was dumped into the clear waters. The town banded together, with hundreds of volunteers working countless hours to clean up the mess. This disaster was no mere accident, but rather rash decisions resulting in catastrophic consequences.
On the 14th of February, 1991, a bulk carrier ship, the Sanko Harvest was heading towards Esperance, fully loaded with 30,000 tonnes of fertiliser, worth $10.5 million. The ship also had 570 tonnes of bunker fuel and 74 tonnes of diesel fuel onboard. The Japanese-owned ship was travelling from Tampa, Florida, via the Panama Canal, to Esperance, and then Kwinana and Geraldton. In the early hours of the morning, the ship took a course through the Recherche Archipelago, in between islands. Esperance residents will be familiar with what happened next. At 3:20 am, 19 nautical miles away from Esperance, south of Cape Le Grand, the Sanko Harvest hit a reef.
With the ship stuck on the reef, the ship’s Master, a Korean national, Captain In Hyeon Kim, telexed the Esperance Port. This trip was Captain Kim’s first command of a ship, and also the first time he had visited the Esperance area. There were 20 crew members on the ship. Captain Ian Harrod, the Esperance Harbour Master, arrived at the Sanko Harvest at 8 am in the harbour’s tug. By this time, the Sanko Harvest was leaking oil, and taking in water. The condition of the ship continued to deteriorate during the day, as the swell continued to push it up against the reef. A team from Sydney-based company United Salvage arrived at the ship that night. By the next morning, the ship’s holds had flooded, and the cargo of fertiliser was being lost into the sea.
Initially, the salvage team had hoped to refloat the Sanko Harvest, but it very quickly became clear that this wouldn’t be possible. They notified the ship’s owners that technically, the ship was in a ‘sunk condition’ and it was only being held up by the reef. The order was given to evacuate the ship before sunset on the 15th of February. The condition of the ship continued to worsen, with both oil and fertiliser being lost into the sea. United Salvage recommended that the remaining oil be unloaded from the ship, but it was not possible to get another ship into the area to load the oil on to because of all the submerged rocks. The Esperance Harbour began to take steps to clean up the oil that had already spilt. On the 17th of February, a heavy swell developed of between 3.5 and 4 metres, and that night the Sanko Harvest broke up and sank.
The clean-up of the spilt oil started immediately, with CALM volunteers travelling out to Seal Rock and Hood Island to remove oil from New Zealand fur seal pups. Huge numbers of local people volunteered to clean up the oil-soaked sand from Esperance’s usually pristine beaches, including most of the town’s schoolchildren. The clean-up extended thirty kilometres east and west of Esperance, with oil reaching as far as Bremer Bay. The oil-stained the pure white sand of the Cape Le Grand National Park’s beaches black, and 75 thousand kilos of oil-soaked sand was removed from Esperance’s beaches. The bill for the clean-up came to $1 million, which was paid by the owners of the Sanko line. The oil pollution affected seals, especially the seal pups, which had to be captured and cleaned individually. It also affected sea birds and kangaroos who stood in the oil while drinking from freshwater creeks in Cape Le Grand national park.
The investigation into the disaster found human error to be at fault. The charts that Captain Kim and his officers were using had clear warnings about travelling through the Archipelago and warned that the area was not properly surveyed, and passage should not be attempted at night, or by vessels without local knowledge. The route that the ship took was plotted by the ship’s Second Officer, and approved by Captain Kim. The usual shipping route to Esperance was via a safe fairway known as the Causeway, and Captain Kim said that he knew of this route. The ship had been delayed by headwinds, and it is possible that they chose the shorter route to try to make up time. The Second Officer, who plotted the fateful course, may not have had a good enough command of English to understand the warnings on the charts. The investigation found Captain Kim’s English was adequate, and he understood the warnings but did not pay them enough attention. The route that they chose, in between Hastings Island and Hood Island, was marked as unsurveyed on the map. The Sanko Harvest did not have the most up to date charts available on board, and the ones they did have had not been properly updated with necessary corrections. This also contributed to the disaster.
The wreck of the Sanko Harvest has broken into pieces and lies near the fateful reef, now named Harvest Reef. It is now a protected area, where fishing is prohibited. The Sanko Harvest is the biggest diveable wreck in Australia, with a length of 174 metres, and a width of 27 metres, and lying at a depth of 20-40 metres. It is the second-largest diveable wreck in the world and is home to a wide range of sea life, including the rare Leafy Sea Dragon. People come from all over the world to dive the Sanko Harvest. Captain Kim is now a Professor of Maritime and Marine Insurance Law in Korea. Fortunately, Esperance’s environment has recovered from the disaster and is still delighting both tourists and locals alike.