UMM AL QAiWAIN // Police sent divers down yesterday to plug a fuel leak from the engine room of the supply ship that sank 16 kilometres off the coast last weekend.
When the leak is sealed, the Ministry of Environment is expected to authorise an operation to raise the White Whale. which is lying on its side about 30 metres down.
"The ministry wants to be sure that all leakages on the ship are closed before it could authorise its lifting," a police official said. "The ministry also wants to be sure that everything is safe and would be safe even in the process of lifting the ship."
Raising the vessel will not be straightforward, a salvage expert said yesterday. "The depth is the complication," said Adeel Alam, owner of Khaleej Al Arabi Marine Diving Services, whose divers found the sunken ship on Wednesday.
"The deeper a vessel is, the less time divers can spend at the bottom. It would have been easier if it was at 10 or 20 metres."
A salvage operation is likely to entail divers attaching the vessel to slings that are then lifted by crane barges, he said.
Most of the sinkings his company deals with involve boats that have been overloaded or with cargo not loaded properly that shifts at sea, causing the vessel to tip.
The White Whale may have been overloaded, and had been reported for that offence before.
Police said that based on the extent of the spillage, the White Whale was carrying more than 1,000 tonnes of diesel, rather than the 450 tonnes that had been declared. The 43-metre White Whale has a gross capacity of 497 tonnes.
The ship left Ajman port on July 2. It is owned by Arabian Coast Cargo Services of Ajman and had been leased by Star Petroleum, also registered in Ajman. Both companies declined to comment yesterday.
Star Petroleum's website says it deals in land freight services and the trading of refined oil and petroleum products.
Nine White Whale crew members arrested in connection with the sinking have been referred to prosecutors in Umm Al Qaiwain. Officials yesterday declined to say what they had been charged with.
Dr Nicolas Pilcher, founder and executive director of the Marine Research Foundation in Malaysia, said the amount of fuel on the White Whale did not threaten a major spill, but could still have serious effects.
"In terms of scale, it is a very small thing," said Dr Pilcher, who does conservation work in the UAE and Qatar. "The problem is, with a vessel like that, it can have quite a substantial localised impact, no matter how big it is. If the oil escapes and floats to the surface, it can create quite a large sea slick."
At sea yesterday, where police established a security cordon several kilometres from the site of the sinking, there was a strong smell of diesel. Fishermen said it had been stronger on Sunday and Monday.
"One of my friends had to vomit several times when we moved around this place on Monday," one fisherman said. "We had to return to the shore to help him, and we were also not feeling well with the strong smell."
The fisherman said no one was working in the prohibited area, which began about six kilometres offshore, but they worried fish might be affected.
"The problem is if we can feel the smell in some fishing areas, the chances are that such areas are also not safe, fish also get the smell as we do," he said.
Dr Rashid Al Misbah, director general of UAQ Municipality, said inspectors were already at work to ensure that no polluted fish got to the fish market. He said all the neighbouring emirates had also put inspectors on alert.
"No one is eating fish now, my friend - forget the assurances the authorities are giving," said Hashim Abu Ala, a resident of UAQ. "But what is important is that the responsible people get punished, and we all know the punishment, so that such violations are not repeated in the future."
* With additional reporting by Rym Ghazal