When Death Came to Mauritius

TOPSHOT - An aerial view taken in Mauritius on August 17, 2020, shows the MV Wakashio bulk carrier, belonging to a Japanese company but Panamanian-flagged, that had run aground and broke into two parts near Blue Bay Marine Park. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

On July 25th, 2020, the container ship MV Wakashio ran aground off the coast of Mauritius, an area known for “some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, (and) healthiest fish.” The ship eventually broke in two, spilling oil into Point D’Esnay, contaminating the coastline’s vegetation and sea life. As Ariel Saramandi recounts in this essay at Granta, when the government failed to act quickly, the citizens of Mauritius took action. The community made booms to soak up oil and protested against government indifference and inaction — despite the threat of being arrested for criticizing the authorities.

We have our superlative reputation to protect, after all: some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, healthiest fish. Tourism is the heart of the economy. The majority of the island’s most opulent hotels are found on the east coast. Plus, the government is heavily invested in the fishing industry. Our fish exports are a 250-million-dollar business, and parastatal fish farms dot the south-eastern lagoon. We are confident that the Wakashio will be removed imminently from the reef: it’s in the government’s self-interest. We hear talk of international assistance and are reassured.

Meanwhile, images show filaments of an oily substance on the shore. Then images show the ship beginning to tilt. The Minister of Fisheries said the photos ‘appeared to be manipulated and deceptive.’ ‘The ship is not sinking and will not sink,’ he said on 5 August 2020.6 All is under control.

The next day thick black streaks coat our lagoon. Oil like lacquer on the water.

Against all international recommendations, despite our outcry and outrage, the government sank half of the Wakashio in great haste on 24 August. Two days later, melon-headed whales washed up around the south-eastern coast. Dead, mutilated, glossy bodies. Authorities haul them onto the back of pickup trucks, tails hanging out. Authorities cover them in white sheets. Videos of dying whales bobbing helpless in the ocean. Video of a mother whale trying to nudge her dying baby above the waves so that it can breathe; she watches as it dies, then dies a little while later, too. Fishermen say the ship was sunk in a whale breeding ground, that some of the corpses they found were of pregnant females.

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