On this day in 1996, a supertanker, the Sea Empress, runs aground near Wales, spilling 70,000 tons of crude oil. The oil spill did not take any human lives, but severely damaged several bird sanctuaries.
The Pembrokeshire coast of South Wales is an area teeming with wildlife, particularly seals and seabirds such as shelducks, teals and curlews. It is also an area often traveled by oil tankers carrying oil from North Sea drilling operations. On the evening of Thursday, February 15, at 8 p.m., the Sea Empress, a 1,300-foot, 147,000-ton tanker was traveling to Milford Haven on the Welsh coast through poor weather conditions. The ship, registered in Liberia, was carrying 128,000 tons of crude oil for Texaco.
The Sea Empress slammed into some underwater rocks and ran aground. The hull was pierced, causing oil to leak from the ship. The 28-member Russian crew worked feverishly to re-float the tanker, while attempting to move the oil to undamaged holding areas. Despite the quick response, the foul weather reduced the effectiveness of these measures. The Sea Empress was pushed aground a second time when tow lines from a towboat snapped.
Eventually the crew was pulled off the ship by Royal Air Force helicopters. High winds prevented most salvage operations, so the only measure officials could take was to drop detergent and dispersal chemicals on the growing oil spill. Approximately 70,000 tons of oil spilled from the tanker, causing a 12-mile-long oil slick. Nearby beaches were covered with the slimy oil, resulting in the deaths of thousands of seabirds.
The bird sanctuaries on nearby Skomer and Skokholm islands suffered severe damage that was still being repaired 10 years later. Nearly a week after the accident, the Sea Empress was finally pulled in to port.