How Satellites Tracked The Fateful Journey Of The Ship That Led To Mauritius’ Worst Oil Spill Disaster

Film of oil from the grounded vessel 'MV Wakashio' being leaked into the pristine waters and coral reefs of the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius (August 7, 2020) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Japanese freighter ‘MV Wakashio’ ran aground on Mauritius’ coral reefs on Sunday 25 July. It remained stuck and started breaking apart 13 days later on Thursday 6 August, releasing 1000 of its estimated 4000 tons of heavy bunker fuel into the pristine waters of the Indian Ocean, as a large gash started appearing on the side of the vessel.

The location of the grounding is close to two internationally protected UNESCO Ramsar sites for wetlands, including a small coral atoll that had been set aside from human interference for the recovery of endemic species of Mauritius’ rich and rare biodiversity.  It is also the location of a famous naval battle featured on France’s Arc de Triomphe, containing many historic Napoleonic wrecks that have laid undisturbed for two centuries.

This is the worst oil spill in the island’s history, and could mean the extinction of many plant, rare bird and wildlife species that are only found on that particular atoll (shown in photo above).  NGO, Volunteer and Government efforts are carrying out salvage operations using small tourist boats, simple fishing vessels and home made oil booms made from clothing, plastic bottles and dried sugar cane leaves.

In a country already reeling from the Covid-19 shutdown of the tourism industry, the economic and ecological implications are likely to be devastating.  Questions are being asked about how this happened, could it have been prevented, and more importantly what steps should now be taken to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring anywhere else in the world.


Part of the answer to these questions may come from space. The last ten years have seen a technological revolution in small cube and nano satellites. There are now over 50 private operators in space, operating satellites that track vessel movement, imagery, synthetic aperture radar through clouds and the night sky, as well as a range of environmental data that is critical for climate change.

Advances in data science has meant that these satellites can also be used forensically – effectively to go back in time to track the activities on the ocean.

One leading company in this field is global satellite analytics company, Windward, who recently appointed former BP CEO Lord Browne as Chairman.

Using their data analytics platform, they have been able to trace the movement of the ‘MV Wakashio’ over the past week of its travels, including the critical last 2 days prior to impact.  This shows how the potential of earth observation satellites can bring radical transparency and accountability to activities on the ocean.

1. History, trajectory and speed of ‘MV Wakashio’

Satellite data can also reveal the speed of the vessel.  With the ‘MV Wakashio,’ it reveals that the vessel was travelling at 11 knots, which is standard for bulk carrier ships at sea, but more importantly did not show any slow down prior to impact.

2. Crowded shipping lanes around Mauritius

Satellite data also reveal how crowded global shipping lanes have become, making them impossible to manage through human eyes alone. Vessel traffic has increased four-fold in the past twenty years.

During the month of July, over 2000 vessels passed close by the Mauritian coast in one of the most concentrated shipping lanes in the world connecting Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America (the historic trade route prior to the opening of the Suez Canal).  Comparing these mainstream shipping lane traffic with the trajectory of the ‘MV Wakashio’ would have revealed the ‘MV Wakashio’ had been on a collision course with Mauritius for several days and was much further North than other vessels using this shipping lane.

3. The rescue efforts can also be tracked via satellite

Satellite data can also be useful in showing the speed of Government response.  Whilst initially there were local patrol vessels along the coast, larger coastguard vessels appeared four days after the grounding. The tug boat, the ‘Stanford Hawk,’ only departed capital city Port Louis on 31 July 2020 (six days after the grounding) and has been seen near to the ‘MV Wakashio’ ever since.

This data from transponders known as AIS (for collision avoidance) can also show the departure of a second rescue vessel, the ‘Boka Expedition,’ departing the UAE on 26 July 2020 – the day after the grounding – but not arriving in Mauritius until 6 August 2020. Again, knowing the departure and arrival of potential rescue vessels could have more effectively informed a local response.

The combination of satellite data (including synthetic aperture radar) has opened up a new era of radical transparency on the ocean, inconceivable a decade ago, and making it possible to develop new tools to govern our oceans.

With the high volume of trade in the Indian Ocean, satellites combined with machine learning algorithms, could easily identify the areas of national waters that are at greatest risk from high traffic flow, as well as any vessels that pollute the waters as they transit through.

It would also help mark out the next generation of digital navigation tools for maritime safety.

The need for an ‘Ocean Mission Control’

With many poorer island and coastal nations not having sophisticated oil and gas industries, there are often insufficient resources to handle even moderate spills, such as the ‘MV Wakashio.’  The situation would have been even worse if the spill had been with an oil tanker.

CEO and Co-Founder of Windward, Ami Daniel, says that “it is almost impossible for humans to track all movement within their national waters – harnessing technology is critical to any management of a modern ocean economy.”

He highlights that “these technologies are able to send early warning indicators to Port Authorities for any suspicious activity ahead of time, reducing any delays or human errors in assessing millions of data points.”

In the same week, Beirut has born the brunt of risks due to handling unsafe cargo in its port, an abandoned oil tanker off the coast of Yemen continues to pose a major ecological threat to the entire Red Sea, and Ecuador and the Korean peninsula are also facing large industrial fleets of fishing vessels that they are unable to effectively patrol.

The investment in the right data and technology infrastructure could have averted such crises.

Unmanned and automated clean up operations

Going beyond prevention using satellites, there are a range of other new technologies that could be transformative to the clean up operations.

In Mauritius, individuals are being asked to place their health at risk to perform the dirty task of cleaning up toxic hydrocarbons.

Yet at the same time, there has been a revolution in autonomous vessels, with San Francisco-based Saildrone now having the world’s largest fleet of ocean-bound autonomous vessels.  They continue to set their sights on more ambitious growth, and are all solar-powered.

For tasks such as the cleanup of oil spills, fleets of autonomous drones could have been used to initially ward off vessels that are deviating from agreed travel paths, and in the case of disasters, be used for cleanup operations, without exposing workers to toxic spills and the health consequences.

Such drone operations could be autonomously controlled or supervised by operators often thousands of miles away using remote cameras.  It truly is a technological revolution happening on the ocean.

From Talk to Action on a ‘Sustainable Ocean Economy’

Whilst the technological revolution in favor of sustainability is being led by many innovative technology companies, policy making lags far behind.

The disaster in Mauritius shows there is a need for the following:

  • Reform of vessel registration to identify the risky operators on the ocean and ensure fair and transparent accountability of the shipping industry.
  • Governments must embrace new technologies, such as Satellites and Machine Learning to more effectively safeguard their ocean territories and natural ecosystems.
  • Creation of a global ‘Ocean Mission Control’ to support local authorities around the world, particularly in poorer countries who would otherwise lack critical scale to access such resources.  The governance of such a resource will need to be more akin to an agile, purpose-driven Silicon Valley startup than traditional international structures.
  • Accelerate the transition to electrification of the global shipping fleet. This would have meant no polluting heavy bunker fuel even if a vessel ran aground.  Government R&D programs have been significantly under-investing in the technologies needed to transform global shipping and create a new multi-trillion dollar new sector, despite publicly pledging the need to meet Climate objectives.

Whilst there are always concerns around cyber security when it comes to technologically augmenting any transport system, cyber-security responses has become more sophisticated and history has shown that there are just as many risks due to human error.

These reforms have been called for years, and yet maritime disasters and pollution continue to occur each week.  The G20 sprung into action very quickly to act on international taxation following the 2008 and 2011 financial crises.  The world responded rapidly to the Coronavirus Pandemic as businesses and Governments rapidly reinvented themselves.  Indeed, some Governments have been publicly calling for a green revolution response to the Post-Covid economy.

With an ecological crisis that is rapidly unraveling, and clear solutions available, it remains to be seen whether those who have called loudest for a ‘Sustainable Ocean Economy’ will be the ones willing to step up and take bold actions rather than more words, conferences and reports.

This story was written by Nishan Degnarain and was first published on Forbes.