UMM AL QAiWAIN // Nine crew of a ship that sank 16 kilometres off the coast on Saturday have been arrested and referred to prosecutors on charges of overloading the vessel.
The White Whale, which is lying on its starboard side under about 30 metres of water, was carrying about 450 tonnes of diesel. It is not known if the diesel was cargo or fuel.
A police official said the amount of fuel on board the 43-metre supply vessel, which carries materials to other ships and oil rigs, appeared to be greater than the crew had declared.
The vessel sank because it was overloaded, said Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Mualla, the director of UAQ police. It is believed to have been reported for this offence on a previous occasion.
The incident began on Saturday when a fisherman from Ras Al Khaimah saw the ship beginning to sink, and RAK police notified their colleagues in Umm Al Qaiwain.
"Immediately the police rescue department, together with the coast guard rescuers, moved to the scene and rescued the nine crew members from different nationalities. They also arrested them immediately," said Sheikh Rashid.
A team of divers sent down to locate the vessel found it at about 2pm on Tuesday. They observed "minor leakage from the engine room", said Adeel Alam, owner of the salvage company, Al Khaleej Al Arabi Marine Diving Services.
Mr Alam warned that the depth at which the ship lay put it under "huge pressure", and there was a risk of greater damage. "We do not know what will happen in the next moment," he said.
UAQ police confirmed that some diesel had leaked from the ship, but said it did not pose any environmental hazards. Sheikh Rashid said the Minister of Environment was personally directing the cleanup operation, and several other government departments, including UAQ Municipality, had sent staff to help.
"We have sent a team of our experts to work closely with the Ministry of Environment to prevent the leakage," said Dr Rashid Al Misbah, director general of UAQ Municipality. "Most of the work is being co-ordinated by the Ministry of Environment, and we are just co-operating here and there, whenever they need our help."
Any oil leakage would be significantly smaller than the UAE's largest, in 1994, when an estimated 16,000 metric tonnes of light crude oil were spilled.
Nevertheless, the incident could cause significant damage, said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director from the US-based environmental organisation Oceana.
"Diesel oil is very toxic to marine life. It can affect a variety of animals," she said.
A spill could also harm fisheries, said Ms Savitz. "Oil can be toxic to fish. If they are exposed to it, it can affect their ability to reproduce if adults, or, if young, it can affect their ability to mature.
"It depends on your perspective. If you are a fish, it does not take much to cause a problem. You don't want to leave oil tanks just sitting there on the bottom of the ocean."
Mr Al Misbah said the municipality would increase inspections of fish at the market in coming days.
Hussein Al Hajri, director of the UAQ Fishermen Association, said his organisation was in continuous contact with Ministry of Environment experts about any possible dangers.
"At present, there have not been any leaks in areas where we do fishing, and fishermen are continuing with their work normally," he said.
"As soon as we are informed of any leakages in any area, we shall ask fishermen to avoid those places."
One resident, Ahmed Al Khaja, said he had smelled diesel on Monday morning and could not work out where it was coming from.
"We need a lot of assurance that the water we use and the fish in the market is all safe," he said.