Mauritius hands 20-month jail sentence to captain of ship that crashed into coral reef, spilling oil

A court in Mauritius hands 20-month jail sentence to the captain and first mate of a freighter that crashed into a coral reef last year, causing the Indian Ocean archipelago’s worst environmental disaster.

Magistrate Ida Dookhy Rambarrun said on Monday the court had taken into consideration “the fact that both defendants pleaded guilty and apologised”.

The MV Wakashio, a Japanese-owned, Panamanian-flagged vessel, ran aground in July 2020, spilling toxic fuel into the pristine waters of Mauritius, coating mangroves, corals and other fragile ecosystems.

The vessel’s captain, who was convicted by a court in the capital, Port Louis, last week, admitted drinking during an onboard party.

Sunil Kumar Nandeshwar and first officer Hitihanillage Subhoda Janendra Tilakaratna were found guilty of “endangering safe navigation”.

“The captain and his second-in-command were irresponsible and did not deliver as they should on their ‘navigational duties’,” the magistrate said on Monday.

The MV Wakashio was sailing from Singapore to Brazil with 3,800 tonnes of fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel on board when it ran into the reef off the southeast coast of Mauritius.

More than 1,000 tonnes of oil seeped into waters full of marine life from a gash in the vessel’s hull before salvage crews were able to remove all the remaining fuel.

The accident occurred near two ecologically critical sites: Blue Bay, known for its coral gardens, and Pointe D’Esny, which hosts a mangrove forest – a crucial ecosystem as well as a weapon in the fight against global warming.

In the days after the accident, thousands of volunteers marshalled along the coast wearing rubber boots and gloves, scrubbing rocks and stringing together makeshift cordons to contain the oily tide.

Thousands of people also took to the streets in the following months to protest against the government’s reaction to the disaster.