GEORGE TOWN (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Up to six tonnes of diesel and hundreds of litres of engine oil floated from Penang seas towards Perak when a ship sank, threatening fish and shrimp farms and the coastal environment along several kilometres of northern Perak's coast.
The vessel's fuel and engine oil began spewing out about seven hours after it hit the remains of a shipwreck nicknamed Kapal Simen, 4km from Penang island's southern coast on Thursday (July 26) morning.
The Star's assistant chief photographer Zainudin Ahad hired a fisherman's boat to reach the half-sunken ship and on arriving, he said he was nauseated by the reek of diesel.
"The smell of diesel was overpowering and it looked like a thin rainbow sheen. I also saw blotches of red engine oil floating southeast towards the mainland.
"The diesel fumes were so strong that I became dizzy and almost got seasick," he said.
With the spill floating freely, marine biologist Datuk Prof Dr Aileen Tan bemoaned the damage to the coastal environment when it eventually reaches land.
She believed the fuel and oil would eventually reach Perak shores because the rapidly falling tide was heading in a southeasterly direction yesterday.
From about noon on Thursday, the tide fell from a high of 2.4m to 0.85m by 7pm.
"The tide was strong and we can only hope that the current and wind will spread the diesel thinly so that when it lands, it is not concentrated enough to do immediate short-term damage in any one area," she said.
About 20km from the spill is Tanjung Piandang, Perak, where dozens of shrimp and fish farms in dugout ponds are near the shore.
Dr Aileen said the farms must be told not to pump in seawater to avoid sucking the diesel into their ponds, especially if their intake pipes are close to the water surface.
"Coastal fisherman must not put out their floating nets or the diesel will contaminate their catch," she said, adding that the diesel and oil could be at sea for a few days before it hits land.
Meanwhile, Perak Mentri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu said the state was on high alert.
By Thursday evening, he said the spill had not reached Perak shores and the state Marine Department had teams deployed along possible shorelines, ready to clean up.
"Our focus now is to prevent the spill from harming open-sea fish farms and our coastal fishermen," he said in a statement.
The 43.6m vessel from Hong Kong, Xin Yi Yi, hit Kapal Simen at about 5.30am on Thursday.
The captain of the vessel, Shing Wei, 61, in his police report, said he had just arrived from Hong Kong to collect live farmed fish from the Batu Maung fisheries jetty.
He reported that it was a misty morning and he did not see the warning light on the buoy that marked Kapal Simen until it was too late. He estimated his loss to be around RM3.5mil. Shing Wei, who could only speak Cantonese, declined to talk to the press.
Shing Wei and his crew of four were saved by local fishermen after Xin Yi Yi sank.
The Penang shipping agent of the vessel, S. Elumalai, said it was a routine trip for the ship, which could take about 30 tonnes of live fish back to Hong Kong.
Northern Region Marine Department director Capt Abdul Samad Shaik Osman said the ship had about six tonnes of fuel on board on reaching Penang and gave assurance that it was not severe.