Thursday January 25 5:09 AM ET
Swells Hamper Effort to Clean Galapagos Oil Spill

By Simon Gardner

PUERTO BAQUERIZO MORENO, Ecuador (Reuters) - Strong swells hampered efforts to clean up the oil spill threatening Ecuador's Galapagos islands but the exotic species of the naturalist's paradise have so far mostly escaped contamination.

Waves crashing over the semi-submerged hulk of the Ecuadorean-registered Jessica, which released the slick after running aground last week, have prevented U.S. Coast Guard teams from trying to remove what little oil remains on board.

Local fisherman, who had been scooping the oil in buckets, called off their efforts Wednesday due to the heavy seas pounding the vessel which is lying on its side on rocks outside the tiny harbor of one of the Galapagos islands, San Cristobal.

``I don't know what we're going to do. This is our livelihood, so obviously we all have to help. But what will happen to the fish here?'' asked 28-year-old fisherman Mauricio.

U.S. Coast Guard operation chief Ed Stanton said the Ecuadorean navy would try to push the vessel upright on Thursday. Only then can efforts be made to pump out the remaining oil, estimated at 10,000 gallons, which could still harm the delicate marine and bird life that inspired British naturalist Charles Darwin to devise his theory of natural selection.

``We've been really lucky with the currents. They have taken the oil away and the impact has been minimal on the wildlife,'' Stanton said.

Admiral Gonzalo Vega, director of the agency which regulates Ecuador's shipping, told Reuters the master of the ship, Tarquino Arevalo, and 12 crew members had been detained in San Cristobal but had not been officially arrested.

Mauro Cerbino, spokesman for Ecuador's Environment Ministry, said the government had filed a lawsuit against Arevalo and requested a preventive prison sentence.

Rocks gashed three holes in the hull of the 835-tonJessica when it ran aground on Jan. 16, half a mile from Galapagos' capital, Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on San Cristobal.

About two-thirds of the cargo of 240,000 gallons of diesel and bunker fuel -- a heavy fuel used to power tour boats operating in the islands -- spilled into the waters that are home to tropical fish and sea lions. About 70,000 gallons have been removed safely from the ship, owned by Guayaquil-based company Acotramar.

Four Pelicans Dead

A dozen sea lions have been smeared with oil and four pelicans have died. Close to 50 animals were rescued by crews from the Galapagos National Park, which set up sites to clean the animals and treat them.

Sea lions continued to bask on the shores of the islands Darwin called the ``enchanted isles'' when he arrived in the early 19th century and found a host of species that had evolved independently for centuries with little outside influence.

The Galapagos, 600 miles from Ecuador's coast, is a prime sanctuary for thousands of birds, marine species and giant tortoises.

A slick mainly consisting of a thin film of diesel has spread as far as Santa Cruz Island, some 40 miles from the stricken ship. Much of the diesel has evaporated. The bunker oil is floating between six and ten miles from the port.

Seen from above, the Pacific was streaked with oily rainbows but the stain had largely broken up with patches of pale blue where chemicals had been sprayed by converted fishing vessels.

Locals fear the slick will damage the archipelago's tourism industry and accuse the government of failing to act swiftly to contain the spill.

``I have always wanted to remain here to work,'' said Javier Diaz, 22, who studies management on the island and works in tourism. ``Now I don't know if I will be able to do it. The government should have requested help at the beginning. Pride held it back.''

In Geneva, the World Wide Fund for Nature, a global conservation organization, called on Ecuador to enforce with urgency its own laws on protection of the islands.

It said the current cleanup should be only the beginning of efforts to ensure that the unique flora and fauna of the Galapagos could survive in the future.