Thursday, 24 March 2011

Pray for Tristan...

In this world where there are so many other headline news stories vying for our time and attention, I want to tell you a story. This is a tale that happens far away from the world we know of - the world that revolves around money, war, poverty, and destruction. But that being said, it is a story that may have a disastrous ending.

In the South Atlantic Ocean, located approximately halfway between South Africa and South America, is the pristine natural wonder that is Tristan Da Cunha and her sister islands of Nightingale and Inaccessible. My family has been involved with these islands since before I can remember - hence my middle name of Tristan. In fact, the relationship dates back to 1937 when my grandfather, Allan Bryant Crawford, charted the first map of the island for the Admiralty. So accurate was his map that even in the world of satellites, his map is still in use by the British Admiralty today.

(Just some background: My grandfather, besides being an engineer and a meteorologist, was also a writer who wrote many books on these islands. He passed away before I joined Mercy Ships in 2007, but afterwards I discovered that the charity he supported throughout his lifetime was always Mercy Ships. His final book, his Memoirs, written in 2006, was even dedicated to his favourite charity. Hence, there is a special connection here. At left you will see the dedication he wrote for Mercy Ships.)

Tristan Da Cunha, a British Overseas Territory, is home to less than 300 islanders, who live off the island's resources. They harvest potatoes and other vegetables in the Potato Patches, a short drive from the settlement of Edinburgh (pictured at right). Their main livelihood is fishing and the export of Tristan Rock Lobster (also known as crawfish). The fishing industry is the lifeblood of the island. The Tristan archipelago is also home to many thousands of fur seals, penguins, albatrosses and various other wildlife endemic to this region of the globe. The island of Inaccessible is a declared World Heritage Site, such is the uniqueness of its ecosystem.

So isolated is this community that they are only reached by ship - usually a five-day voyage from Cape Town. There are no landing strips and the island is well beyond the endurance of helicopters. SA Agulhas, at left, makes a once-yearly trip to the island.

Now into this pristine, unspoiled environment picture a large bulk carrier, some 75,000 gross tonnes, crashing at full-speed into Nightingale Island. There are two other ships in the vicinity that come to the aid of the vessel and rescue her 22-man crew. A salvage tug is immediately sent from Cape Town to assist, but will take four days to reach the island chain. And then, just a few hours after the last crew are rescued, the unthinkable happens and the ship breaks apart in the relentless South Atlantic swells. Tristan is now facing an ecological disaster with crude oil plastering thousands of penguins and other sealife. The thousands of Northern Rockhopper Penguins, at right, are now threatened.

This is not a nightmare. This is the truth. The MS Oliva ran aground in the early hours of Wednesday, 16th March. The Smit Amandla salvage tug was dispatched from Cape Town to assist and reached the islands earlier this week. Unfortunately, when Smit Amandla left Cape Town the Oliva was still intact and thus the thought was of simply pulling her off the rocks. However, she broke apart and now authorities are busy chartering another ship to assist in the clean-up operation, and will bring with it an expert team from SANCCOB (the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) to help clean the birds. The ship pictured here is the small Cape Town-based fishing vessel M/V Edinburgh, one of two ships in the area that went to the aid of the MS Oliva.

So what I'm asking is for you to take a few moments in your day to pray for the people of Tristan. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers. With so much oil being discharged from the wreck, the effect on the long-term livelihood of the islanders could be problematic. So in the midst of reading about wars and earthquakes elsewhere, remember the islanders today.

All photos here courtesy of my parents and myself. For more, visit the Tristan Da Cunha website here.

Traditional island cottages on Tristan.

The Potato Patches.

In the vicinity where MS Oliva ran aground. Nightingale Island is on the right.

Northern Rockhopper Penguins are now at threat...

... As are the Fur Seals.

Smit Amandla is currently down at Tristan to assess the situation.

South Africa's Environmental Affairs marine patrol ship Sarah Baartman may be used to assist in the clean-up operation.

SA Agulhas may also be an option as she carries two helicopters.

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