By Alex Lubben
More than 600 gallons of diesel fuel spilled into the ocean near the Galapagos archipelago, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
A crane loading an electric generator flipped over early Sunday and capsized the barge off the coast of San Cristobal Island, the easternmost in the archipelago. Video of the incident shows the crew members diving off the barge as it’s falling into the ocean. None of them were seriously injured, but the oil that spilled threatens the animals living in the Galapagos, the only place where certain species of iguanas, giant turtles, and sea lions live.
Authorities are reportedly working to contain the spill to the extent that they can, and Ecuadorian authorities said Sunday that they had a handle on the situation. They mobilized emergency responders who used big oil-absorbent cloths to try to mop the oil out of the water.
“The situation is under control, and a series of actions have been deployed to mitigate the possible effects,” the presidential communications office said, according to France 24.
Sunday's spill is a relatively small one. For example, the Exxon Valdez spilled some 11 million gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Prince Williams Sound in Alaska back in 1989. That incident took years to clean up and killed as many as 250,000 seabirds.
Known for leading Charles Darwin to his theory of evolution, the islands are home to a number of species found nowhere else on the planet, like little mammals called rice rats, lava lizards, and the flightless cormorant.
Oil spills, obviously, aren’t good for those animals. Birds can wind up ingesting oil as they clean themselves. When fish come into contact with the oil, it can enlarge their livers and alter their respiration rates. Oil can also damage sea turtles’ salt glands, which regulate the salt concentrations inside their bodies.
The islands, about 600 miles off the coast and part of Ecuador, are generally well-protected. There have been few recorded extinctions on the islands since humans settled them in the 1800s. But conservationists have been warning that the islands are threatened by over-tourism. In 2007, 161,000 people visited the islands; In 2016, 225,000 visited, according to the New York Times. With more people come more invasive species, which can outcompete local plants and animals. Blackberries from China threaten native shrubs and trees. Singapore and is overrunning the islands without any natural competitor, and non-native wasps are eating the local butterflies.
Cover image: JANUARY 24: Marine iguanas, endemic to the Galapagos, on a beach on Santa Cruz island on January 24, 2019 in Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images for Lumix)