Officials said over 1,000 tonnes of oil from the MV Wakashio cargo has already leaked out into the sea, with reports of new cracks to the ship’s hull further increasing urgency.
Mauritius’ prime minister, Pravind Jugnauth, declared a state of emergency and appealed for international help on Sunday as the spill “represents a danger” for the Indian Ocean island, where the crystal clear waters and coral reefs are world-renowned and the economy relies heavily on tourism.
Volunteers and locals have been working around the clock making absorbent barriers of straw-stuffed fabric sacks to create cordons around the ship in an attempt to absorb the oil and prevent it spreading further.
Wading through the dark oily water, people have also been using empty oil drums to scoop up as much oil as they can from shallower areas.
Sunil Dowarkasing, an environmental consultant and former MP, said: “This is no longer a threat to our environment, it is a full-blown ecological disaster that has affected one of the most environmentally important parts of Mauritius, the Mahebourg Lagoon.
“The people of Mauritius, thousands and thousands, have come out to try to prevent as much damage as possible.”
Mr Dowakarsing said everyone helping is “working flat out”, adding that the oil “is not only floating in the lagoon, it’s already washing up on the shore”, which made the situation even more challenging.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in Mauritius.”
In a separate interview with AFP, Mr Dowakarsing said all the volunteers were “covered black” with oil as they try to make some headway in cleanup efforts.
“We will never be able to recover from this damage. But what we can do is try to mitigate as much as we can,” he added.
Residents and environmentalists are also angry with the Mauritian government for not acting sooner after the ship ran aground on 25 July.
Satellite images show how far the oil has spread around the grounded cargo ship, even clogging up mangrove forests and inlets along the coastline. Activists fear irreparable damage has been done and the disaster has undone years of conversation work.
The ship’s owner, Nagasaki Shipping, and the ship’s operator, Mitsui OSK Lines, apologised on Sunday for the catastrophic leak.
Company officials said during their first news conference since the ship ran aground that they have sent experts to the island to join in the cleanup effort and are trying to deploy environmentally-friendly methods of cleaning up the spill.
Akihiko Ono, vice president of the operating company, said: “First of all, we are doing the utmost the prevent further oil spill and to remove it from the sea.
“We are aware of a potential major impact on the tourism in the area and we take it very seriously.”
Mr Jugnauth told reporters late on Sunday that the worst is yet to come as the cracks have grown and the situation worsens.
“The risk of the boat breaking in half still exists,” he warned. Strong winds and currents have pushed the slick even further up the coast.
Additional reporting by AP