Oil spills are a significant environmental risks for oil and shipping industries worldwide and have been for many decades. Although, in recent years we have seen vast improvements in safety standards leading to decreases in the number of accidents worldwide. However when spills occurs the environment and livelihood effects can be significant.

Historically, focus has been on prevention, however recent developments show that there is also a high priority to develop technologies as well as organisational structures that have the capability to respond to spill incidents.

Exercise 'Cathach' is a 2 day demonstration of oil spill response and will be held in the Shannon Estuary over the 17th and 18th of April 2013 - registration open

When oil spill accidents do happen, prompt action minimizes the impact. 


Source: chartsbin.com

This map shows the largest oil spills in history (1901 to Present), from tanker accidents and drilling operations, as well as a number of other notable spills.


Incidents in Ireland

Betelgeuse (shown in the map) which resulted in the death of 50 people and the estimated loss of 40,000 tonnes of oil into the surrounding local environment.



In the early afternoon of January 8, 1979, the tanker Betelgeuse exploded at the offshore pier of the Gulf Oil Terminal at Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, Ireland. The tanker broke in two and settled in 130 feet of water with 300,000 barrels of oil remaining onboard.

The fire burned throughout the day. During the night the fire was extinguished and the stern section sank completely. Approximately 14,720 barrels of oil leaked from the vessel, 3,680 barrels of which impacted the shoreline. 


The oil that was released from the tanker burned as it leaked until the fire went out late on January 8. On January 9, a slick began to form, and oil impacted the east shore of Bantry Bay and Reenydonagan Point on Whiddy Island.

Inspections revealed that 37 barrels of oil per hour was leaking from the wreck. Oil leaked at this rate for a week. On January 12, the oil impacted the north and south shores of Bantry Bay. By the next day the oil had spread as far west as Castle Townbere on the north shore of the bay and League Point on the south shore. Bear Island was also impacted.

In addition intense heat caused much of the oil to polymerise into an asphalt-like residue some of which coated about 400m of rocky shoreline near the jetty to a thickness of 30cm.

The oil residue was denser than water and sunken patches were seen in the vicinity of the wreck by divers and fishermen reported it contaminating bottom trawls and escallop dredges up to 28 km away.


Cleanup operations were organized by the Cork County Council. Operations included the manual removal of oil and the spreading of hay to absorb oil on the shoreline. Small amounts of oil were collected at sea in the vicinity of the wreck using a skimmer in conjunction with a towed Troill boom. Suction operations were also conducted on the shore. Booms contained the oil leaking from the tanker.

Contained oil was treated with dispersants applied from planes, and was skimmed with a Gulf Oil Company Bay skimmer. Boom was placed across the mouth of the Glengariff Harbour to prevent oil from entering it. Undamaged tanks were lightered using floating hoses running to the shore facilities.


Other Historical Spills

Additional spills have occured across the country - such incidents include:


Kowloon Bridge

November 1986 resulted in two ships seeking assistance off our coast. The Italian tanker Capo Emma, 89,000 tonnes dwt, fully loaded with crude oil sought refuge in Bantry Bay on 18th of November with a large section of bow plating removed. The Chief Surveyor of the Marine Survey Office was assigned to take control of the situation, the delicate task of discharging Capo Emma’s cargo was duly undertaken and successfully achieved.

However before completion of this work another casualty arrived. The Kowloon Bridge had sailed from Seven Isles, with consignment of iron ore, bound for the Clyde. At 18.00 GMT on the 18th she signalled the coast radio station at Valentia that she intended to shelter in the protection of Bantry Bay. At 00.28 a second message to Valentia stated that she had a crack in No 6 hatch coaming, and a crack which was slowly expanding between No 9 hatch and the pump-room. 

The surevy of the Kowloon Bridge was completed on the 20th of November and the surveyor instructed the master to remain in Bantry until certain essential temporary repairs were carried out.

However, on the morning of the 22nd, the wind blew Force 10 to 12 from the south-west, right into the bay and at about 08:00 the anchor cable carried away. The master steamed slowly ahead into the weather and several hours he attempted to keep the ship within the doubtful shelter of the bay, before eventually seeking the open water.

By nightfall there was no sign of a moderation in the weather, the ship was about five miles west of Sheep Head and she was beginning to display steering issues. At 23:05 the steering failed altogether and Captain Rao requested immediate assistance through Valentia. Shortly afterwards the captain and his crew were brought to shore by SAR helicopter. At 22.20 the LE Aoife reported seeing an explosion from the top of her funnel, shortly followed by power outage and her engines stopping. She was now carried eastward, narrowly missing Kedge Island and finally grounding on the Stags rocks some six miles east of Baltimore Harbour. 


She broke her back almost immediately and an unsuccessful attempt was made to tow off the stern section by the tugs Smit Rotterdam and the Typhoon. The weather continued bad and prevented discharge of her bunker oil, which subsequently leaked 2,000 Tonnes of bunker fuel into the surrounding environment. The resulting fuel spilt out over the Irish coastline causing extensive damage to local wildlife. The response was organised by Cork County Council in assistance from various organisation and the remaining bunker fuel was removed.

In Spring 1987, Kowloon Bridge split into three sections and sank, becomming (and remains today) the largest shipwreck in the Northern Hemisphere.


Afran Zodiac

On the 11th of January 1975, the Liberian tanker the Afran Zodiac collided with a tug in Bantry Bay next to the oil terminal. The Tanker steamed out of the Bay while 480 tons of heavy bunker fuel oil escaped. 

This resulted in 4 km of shoreline being polluted by the thick slick, response teams sprayed dispersants on the oil slicks. The response operations were coordinated in the clean up operations and search parties were helped by the assistance of a SAR helicopter.


Admiral Kuznetsov

On 14 February 2009, the Irish Coast Guard received a European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) satellite surveillance report (from near real-time CleanSeaNet Satellite) indicating the presence of pollution off the south coast of Ireland. The Coast Guard dispatched an Irish Air Corps CASA CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft to investigate which confirmed the presence of oil on the surface of the sea around a Russian Navy oil tanker and the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier. The spill was located in international waters 80 km south of the Fastnet Rock.

Admiral kuznetsov

Initial estimates put the spill at around 1 000 tonnes, but further aerial surveillance by the Irish and British maritime authorities concluded that it was in the region of 400-500 tonnes.

On 17 February, a CleanSeaNet image showed that the slick had expanded to 8 x 1km and had drifted around 30km East-North-East of the original position. The spill was closely monitored until it naturally dispersed without hitting the coastline.