Oil spill response, wildlife rescue, and crocodiles

Oil spill response operations. Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jaclyn Young

Leaping out of boats to rescue a turtle in crocodile-infested waters is just one of the skills the people of Torres Strait Islands must prepare for in the event of an oil spill.

The last major spill in the Torres was in 1970, when  the Oceanic Grandeur, carrying 55,000 tonnes of crude oil, struck an unchartered rock. Since there have been 14 groundings of bulk carriers and cargo vessels, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Torres Strait became a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) in 2005 because of its vulnerability to damage from international shipping activities. It is a major passage for Australia’s multibillion dollar coal exports.

In August 2018, the government launched Exercise Torres,  a multi-agency exercise based on an oil spill scenario involving local councils and traditional owners.

Michael Short, chief advisor incident management, Queensland Department of Environment and Science outlined the challenges involved in his presentation “Exercise Torres – Oiled Wildlife Response” to SpillCon 2019 regional conference held in Perth, in May.

“The program for capturing marine turtles affected by a spill can be rodeo-like,” he told SAS.  “It’s about chasing the animal down in boats and diving into the water to capture it.”

Short said to ensure the safety of people, the rescue includes a crocodile risk management team charged with mapping where predators are lurking.

“We survey at night with a spotlight to locate any.  Their eyes are luminescent and light up.   We can identify where the animals are and provide guidance for people working in the field.”

“During exercise Torres,  we also had drones in the air to assist in mapping the oil contamination and to identify any dangerous animals, like crocodiles in the vicinity of the field activities,” he said.

The last major spill in the Torres was in 1970, when the Oceanic Grandeur, carrying 55,000 tonnes of crude oil, struck an unchartered rock. Since there have been 14 groundings of bulk carriers and cargo vessels  according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.