Disasters and tar balls

Nearly all oil transported by sea arrives safely at its destination. However, sometimes a technical or human failure, often in extreme weather conditions, can cause a vessel to lose all or part of its cargo at sea, which can lead to the tide coming in black.

If a teacher asked a class to explain what the term “oil spill” meant, the first image that would be brought to mind is no doubt that of a big oil tanker ripped open, spilling hundreds of thousands of tonnes of oil on the nearby shores. Two recent cases are likely to be mentioned by European pupils: the dramas of the Erika and the Prestige. American pupils are liable to bring up the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska. Japanese pupils will use the example of the Nakhodka.

In each region of the world, one or two incidents will be referred to that marked collective memory. Other accidents, less serious although they were the news of the moment, may also be mentioned, such as the grounding of the coastal tanker the Jessica in the Galapagos Islands. Whatever the accident, the pupils will tend to concentrate on the images shown on television and in the press of black waves which taint the rocks and the beaches, of exhausted, oiled birds or seals waiting to die, of men in stained oilskins wading in unending expanses covered in a thick, sticky substance.

The guilty parties identified at a first glance are obvious: giant oil tankers, glibly referred to as "ships of shame". They are accused of sailing too close to the coast to arrive a few hours early at their destination, as instructed by anonymous, profit-greedy, shipowners unmindful of the environment and hidden behind a flag of convenience.

Arrival of a large oil spill

It is only after this first wave of shocking images that it is possible to try and tease out other ideas, by asking questions such as: you have mentioned oil tankers, but can a black tide be caused by a spill on land? By an explosion on an oil rig? By the wrecking of a trawler or a cargo ship? By a terrorist or otherwise malicious act? By an act of war? Where do the tar balls, patties or patches that can often be found on certain beaches or rocky coasts come from? Are these types of oil spills?



These questions inevitably provoke conflicting replies and different stances. One pupil might mention a major oil spill caused by an explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Another might refer to the oil spill caused by the sabotage of Kuwaiti oil wells during the Gulf War. Yet another might speak of oil tankers sunk by missiles during the Iran-Iraq War. The notion of voluntary discharge may be brought up, in relation to the presence of oily marks on beaches.

In fact, it is of little importance what examples the pupils draw upon, as long as they allow them to overcome the single vision of an oil spill as a disaster caused by an oil tanker. Oil spills can be large or small. They can result from accidental shipwrecking due to collision, grounding or explosion; from chronic pollution; from malicious or foolish acts; from technical failure or from natural disasters. They can occur in open seas, on the shore or come from inland via rivers. Oil spills are part of the vast and multifaceted issue that is water pollution, which concerns us all and brings to the fore our collective responsibility towards future generations.

Eye witness: The black tide inches to shore. And Spain holds its breath.

“White waves are crashing on to golden sands along Spain’s beautiful ‘coast of death’. Bright fishing boats throng the harbour and seabirds go about their business without a care in the world. At first sight, and from a distance, there seems nothing wrong with the long chain of coves and beaches that stretch along the Galician coast from La Coruna to this beautiful mountain-surrounded harbour on the very edge of Europe, despite the much-publicised oil pollution of the last week.

It is when you get closer that you notice the difference. The first thing to hit you is the smell […]

Down the shore the rocks are clearly blacker than even the darkest should be. Close up, it seems that they have been painted a glistening uniform black and it is from that the smell is coming. The high tide marks of the beaches are also daubed with oil. The boats are in harbour because they are not allowed to fish.”
© The Independent. Reproduced with permission.