British satellite analytics firm, Geollect, has made new revelations about the final journey of the Japanese bulk carrier, the Wakashio, which led to the large oil spill on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius last summer.
Geollect’s advanced analytics capabilities have revealed that the Wakashio ground to a sudden halt in the middle of the Indian Ocean on July 17, three days after fueling in Singapore and eight days before it collided with the island of Mauritius.
There was a period of five-and-a-half hours over 60 miles that is unexplained for the vessel, in which Geollect’s analysis of satellite records was able to identify an unusual drifting pattern of the vessel. For around 30 minutes of this five and a half hours, the vessel was seen drifting in the middle of the Indian Ocean without any power or engine speed at a 90 degree angle to its previous direction of travel. There has been no explanation for why the vessel came to an halt in the middle of the ocean. Satellite weather data analyzed by Geollect also show that conditions were calm at the time with no adverse weather patterns in close vicinity.
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When the Wakashio became grounded on Mauritius, Panama Authorities and the Mauritian police have revealed that several key electronic components did not appear to be working properly, such as the ship’s radios, electronic charts, voyage data recorder. The four AIS signals over five and a half hours is also indicative that the AIS system was not functioning effectively at that moment, as there should have been a near-continuous signal being sent to avoid ship collisions in the middle of the ocean.
Just four days after this sudden stop, the bulk carrier’s engines started slowing down on July 21, over a period of 8 hours and the Wakashio then made a sudden 13 degree turn toward Mauritius, where it later ended up on the island’s coral reefs, still travelling at a cruising speed of over 10 knots. The slow down of the engine over the course of July 21 has not been explained, and would have taken place in the middle of the Indian Ocean, thousands of miles from any coast.
The vessel operator, MOL had not mentioned this shut down of power on July 17 nor explained why the Wakashio veered 13 degrees toward Mauritius on July 21, or whether this was an authorized deviation from the ship’s voyage plan that would have been agreed in advance.
This satellite information is easily accessible to large shipping giants such as MOL to ensure the safety of their fleet, as well as oil majors such as BP which uses satellites to monitor its ships around the world. Such satellite analysis is critical for the investigation by Mauritian authorities who are trying to understand the root cause for how the Wakashio ended up on its shores.
On January 12, BP issued a press statement saying mechanical issues were not the root cause of the Wakashio grounding. In the same press statement, BP confirmed that it supplied the VLSFO fuel to the Wakashio but denies that the fuel exceeded ship engine safety parameters.
On January 18, Japanese shipping giant MOL said, “It has been established that no mechanical issues whatsoever were involved in the grounding.” MOL went on to say, “There have been no reports whatsoever that the Wakashio had any mechanical or fuel problems in the period leading up to the grounding.”
The new satellite analysis by Geollect of a sudden stop in the middle of the Indian Ocean and unexplained vessel behavior for five and a half hours would not have been a normal part of the journey to cross the Indian Ocean. Satellite analysis from firms such as Windward and Geollect reveal that all other vessels crossing the Indian Ocean at that time travelled consistently at an even speed without stopping at that location. Industry reports have shown that older vessels such as the 13 year old Wakashio, that had a history of deficiencies (an EU ship safety database revealed the Wakashio had almost 100 deficiencies in its history, double that of other vessels in its owner’s fleet), would have been particularly susceptible to experimental VLSFO fuel, especially if the fuel exceeded certain engine safety parameters.
At the time of the oil spill, the Mauritian Prime Minister had issued a call for help, and Governments and civil society from around the world mobilized to support the island. This sort of voyage data information could have been provided by companies with access to such satellite data to assist the inquiry, improve safety at sea, and aid a country in a state of national emergency, experiencing a major oil spill for the first time.
To date, images of the ship’s engines (especially of the engine pistons, purifiers and filters), have not been shared publicly and would either support or refute this line of investigation. The Wakashio had been carrying over 1 million gallons of BP’s VLSFO ship fuel in its tanks at the front of the ship, and yet none of this VLSFO has been chemically analyzed. Oil spill experts such as U.S. Department of Interior official, Rick Dawson found this highly surprising in an interviews in September and October. This procedure should have happened within days of the oil spill, with samples of the BP fuel being kept in the engineer’s room, at the source of the fueling in BP Singapore, as well as easily obtainable from the ship’s fuel tanks as it lay on the reefs.
Australian authorities who were asked to look into the chemical properties of the VLSFO ship fuel for modelling purposes confirmed on January 11, that they had still not been handed a sample of the Wakashio’s VLSFO ship oil to analyze – either from the international consultants in Mauritius who were coordinating the oil spill response, or from BP in Singapore which supplied the fuel to the Wakashio in the first place.
The Mauritian authorities’ inquiry into the cause of the grounding and oil spill opened this week in capital city Port Louis, and questions about the ship’s fuel and potential engine failure are likely to feature prominently.
British-based Geollect are leaders in the world of geospatial intelligence, with experienced former U.S. and U.K. Naval officers who have worked at the highest levels to understand and interpret maritime activities. Their Geonius platform integrates various datasets (for example, vessel tracking data, satellite remote sensing observations, and aggregated views of global shipping) with specially designed functionality to identify unusual ship behavior and to interpret ship activity on the oceans.
Geollect has revealed that there were five critical incidents along the Wakashio’s final journey from Singapore to Mauritius that need to be explained.
Ship operator MOL has only briefly mentioned incident 1 that took place on July 15 and incident 4 that took place on July 23.
However, MOL has not provided an explanation for incident 2 on July 17 or incident 3 on July 21, which are significantly more important to understand the cause of the grounding of the Wakashio. Incident 5 on July 25 reveals that there was some degree of navigation control on the bridge as the vessel approached Mauritius.
The Wakashio filled up with BP VLSFO fuel on July 14 in Singapore. Satellite analysis from Geollect reveals that it had not exhibited any sudden engine failures in the months prior to the refueling.
Within a day of the fueling operation and departure from Singapore, the Wakashio suddenly deviated from the main shipping lanes (marked in red). It moved from 14 Nautical miles from the Indonesia coast in the Straits of Malacca, to around 4 Nautical miles.
No explanation has been provided for why the vessel deviated off course. However, if the satellite communication systems on board a vessel were not working, vessels would be forced to find alternative ways to communicate. This is more challenging in the middle of the ocean (especially on a three month round-trip voyage around the world and away from the coast), so local cell phone signals would be sought. So far, there has not been any independent analysis of whether the vessel’s communication systems was fully functional. The vessel owner and operator have not shared whether they had been receiving the daily Noon Reports from the captain, which would be indicative of whether the vessel’s communication systems were functioning, as well as containing any details of issues on the ship’s voyage, such as the 17 July halt in the middle of the ocean.
On December 18, MOL’s CEO, Junichiro Ikeda, said, the Wakashio “had approached to other coasts several times even before the incident, they may have taken unsafe behaviors due to overconfidence that stems from complacency. In MOL’s view, such behavior on a large vessel reflects a lack of safety awareness.”
If a vessel was experiencing serious safety and communication issues, the intention with which it was approaching a coast is crucial information. MOL have not said which other coasts the Wakashio had approached close to.
The only close coast encounter on the journey from Singapore to Mauritius prior to the grounding was incident 1, a day after refueling in Singapore.
The next significant incident occurred on 17 July between 3.08am and 8.28am Mauritius time. The Wakashio had just entered the Indian Ocean the previous day (line marked in yellow and red above).
However, over this five and a half hour period, only four AIS transponder signals were detected. This is highly unusual, as AIS transponders should be picked up at least minute or so to avoid ship collisions, meaning at least 60 signals over the course of an hour. While there may be some variation, maritime analysts expect a near continuous signal, rather than just four pings in a five and a half hour window. Geollect’s analysis of other ships in the area around that time reveal that there does not appear to have been a blackout of satellite coverage in that location at that time.
These four AIS signals are central to understanding the vessel coming to a halt on the morning of July 17. These signal locations have been marked ‘a,’ ‘b,’ ‘c,’ and ‘d’ in the charts below from Geollect for ease of reference.
At point ‘a,’ the Wakashio had been travelling at a normal cruising speed of 11.7 knots. The gap between signal ‘a’ and signal ‘b’ was then four hours. This is highly unusual. When the AIS transponder appeared again, the vessel had essentially ground to a halt and was found drifting at 90 degrees to the direction it should have been travelling in, in a relatively stationary position. After starting back up again at point ‘c,’ it then took another hour to reach the same cruising speed it had been travelling at and then changed course to head back South West across the Indian Ocean.
Geollect’s Head of Research, Dr Ryan Lloyd, explains the findings from the satellite analysis of the Wakashio’s journey. “Between 03:08 Mauritius time on 17 July 2020 and 07:04 Mauritius time on the 17 July 2020, whilst the vessel was travelling South-West through the Indian Ocean, the Wakashio slowed from 11.7 knots to 0.6 knots over a distance of 70 km.”
The start is marked by point ‘a’ where the Wakashio was travelling at 11.7 knots at 3.08am Mauritius time on July 17. The AIS transponder for the Wakashio then goes dark until point ‘b.’ However, it is clear that the vessel was no longer travelling at the same speed, as over this distance from ‘a’ to ‘b,’ it averaged a slower 9 knots.
Geollect’s Dr Ryan Lloyd continues his explanation of the findings, “Whether the vessel gradually slowed or slowed dramatically cannot be determined owing to the almost 4 hour gap in AIS between these two observations.”
Lloyd showed from satellite analysis that the vessel did not just slow down but significantly shifted course, implying it was being buffeted by the wind and no longer under engine power. “Between 03:08 and 07:04 Mauritius time the vessel also changed course (from 226 to 287 degrees) and heading (from 226 to 294 degrees), but it’s position is still in line with the vessel’s trajectory up until this point.”
Lloyd continues, by showing that, “between 06:04 and 07:26 Mauritius time the vessel travels 800 m to the North-West, and increases its speed to 4.2 knots.” Satellite analysis of wind and current reveals that wind was the dominant environmental factor, with the ocean current speed being just 0.4 knots. This could explain the slow speed increase to 4.2 knots over the course of 800 meters. It does not appear that engine power had been restored given the direction that the Wakashio was continuing to drift in.
The ocean currents and wind in this part of the Indian Ocean has been analyzed in detail since the missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 flight in 2014, and fairly accurate models exist from Australian scientific organization, CSIRO.
“At 07:26 the vessel’s course is 304 and its heading is 290. The clockwise rotation of the vessel’s course suggests it is being influenced by the waves and wind, whilst the vessel turns to the South-West to continue its journey,” said Lloyd.
The clockwise rotation that Lloyd refers to implies the loss of engine power. The return to a South-West direction would be when engine power was likely to have been restored, at point ‘c.’
Lloyd concludes by observing that “by 08:28 the vessel is continuing on it’s previous course, 223, at 12.2 knots.”
A calculation of the distance and time between points ‘c’ and ‘d’ reveal that it takes the Wakashio just over an hour to increase speed steadily from 4.2 knots to 12.2 knots.
Geollect’s experts explain that a ship engine failure accompanied by a full bridge electrical systems failure could also explain why the AIS transponders went out for much of this 5.5 hour window.
An electrical systems failure could also explain why the Mauritian Coastguard were unable to reach the Wakashio as it approached the coast of Mauritius. Panama authorities had observed on September 8 that there were discrepancies with the Wakashio’s electronic map system (ECDIS), and the Mauritian Police have revealed that the Voyage Data Recorder did not appear to have anything stored on it. The ship owners, operators and maritime authorities are yet to provide an official explanation for these anomalies.
Large companies with deep maritime expertise could be offering their expertise to the Mauritian authorities to help extract the data from the Voyage Data Recorder and analyze the ship’s electric systems, especially those seeking to improve ship safety and avoid incidents like this from occurring again anywhere around the world.
Three days later after this sudden halt in the ocean, one of the three BP fuel samples that were taken from the Wakashio at refueling in Singapore, arrives at MOL’s laboratories on 20 July. MOL laboratory analysis of the VLSFO oil suggests that certain key parameters exceeds the ship engine’s safety guidelines issued by the engine manufacturers.
Several hours later, the speed of the Wakashio begins to steadily decrease by around 15% over the course of eight hours.
It was at this point that the Wakashio makes its dramatic 13 degree turn toward Mauritius.
A comparison with the location of the Wakashio with the major shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean reveals that the Wakashio was in a highly unusual position, significantly more South than almost all vessels traversing the Indian Ocean from Singapore and round South Africa over that period.
So far, vessel operator MOL or vessel owner Nagashiki Shipping, have not shared the vessel’s voyage plan that would have needed to be authorized prior to departure from Singapore. In a statement on September 8, Panama Maritime Authorities have said that they observed discrepancies with the vessel’s electronic navigation system (ECDIS) and the maps that were being used. The supplier of the ECDIS electronic map hardware or map provider has not yet been released.
On December 18, MOL issued a statement that referred to a course correction two days before the grounding. The only course correction that could be identified from Geollect’s analysis was on July 24 at 3.50pm Mauritius time. Geollect was unable to identify a course correction on July 23, that the CEO of MOL mentioned in his statement on December 18.
As seen from the Geollect satellite analysis below, this was a relatively minor course correction compared with the major navigation change of passage on 21 July.
MOL’s press release on December 18 argues that this course adjustment was the reason why the Wakashio moved from a distance of 22 nautical miles from the coast to five nautical miles. MOL did not say whether their 24 hour operations center (called SOSC) detected this change, as travelling even five nautical miles off the coast of Mauritius would have been risky and unusually close compared to other vessels who pass by Mauritius.
However, if the Wakashio had not made the sudden turn on July 21, it would have stayed over 350 miles away from the Mauritian coast.
This is why incident 4 is a less important that the bigger incidents of July 17 (incident 2) and July 21 (incident 3), that have so far remained unexplained.
The final course correction by the Wakashio occurred at 5.44pm on 25 July. The Wakashio was heading directly for the local fishing town of Mahebourg.
However, 20 nautical miles out, it veered slightly South and began to slow down marginally from 11.8 knots to 10.2 knots. It still collided with Mauritius’ reefs at cruising speed of over 10 knots. Had it not made that final course adjustment, it would have ended up directly impacting the tourism and artisanal fishing port of Mahebourg.
This implies there was a degree of navigation control in the bridge as the vessel approached the Mauritian coast.
Maritime ship engineers have raised the question whether the ship could have been out of control through a ‘runaway engine’ due to combustion taking place outside the piston heads due to faulty piston rings, that could have been broken by the use of faulty VLSFO fuel and associated chemicals. This is a risk that has been reported by ship engineers, at industry conferences and in trade publications and was one of the major risks associated with VLSFO fuels.
If there had been a mechanical and electrical systems failure, and the Wakashio would have had no functioning radio or connectivity options, and would have been unable to hear the Mauritian coastguard attempting to contact the approaching vessel through the usual maritime radio channels (called VHF radio). It could have also meant that the electronic charts (ECDIS) may have displayed inaccurate information or not be functioning at all (assuming the backup power generator was not working). If the internet connectivity was not working, this would be the reason why the Wakashio needed to come close to get some form of signal to indicate what was happening on board. It could also have meant that the crew were relying on the ship’s echo sounder (used to detect ocean depth) for navigation, which would not have detected the step gradient of the fringing reef around Pointe d’Esny.
So far, these questions have not been addressed in the investigation into the grounding.
A spokesperson from MOL confirmed on 27 September that they were only in contact with the Wakashio ‘around midnight local time’ on 25 July, meaning there was a four and a half hour gap when the Wakashio was sitting on Mauritius’ reefs between 7.30pm local time and midnight when MOL was unaware that the Wakashio was on Mauritius’ reefs. Ship owner Nagashiki Shipping have not said when they first became aware that that Wakashio had grounded.
Given the population density around that part of Mauritius, a well lit vessel would have been clearly noticed on a busy Saturday evening at 7.30pm so close to the coast, and the lights would have been easily recorded on local security cameras on beachfront properties. However, no coastal resident reported seeing the lights of the Wakashio until the Sunday 26 July morning.
If it does turn out that the reason for the vessel coming to a halt on July 17 and the reason for the change in navigation on July 21, was ultimately due to fuel causing engine problems, then this is an important safety issue to ensure there is full information and transparency around for all vessel exposed to such risks.
The oil used to power the Wakashio was confirmed to the experimental type of fuel called low-sulfur VLSFO fuel and supplied by BP. This fuel had been rushed through by the UN regulator of global shipping, and was not being properly monitored by authorities around the world (Government agencies around the world have said that they have not been regularly sampling this fuel). The fuel was also found to contribute more to climate change in a report by the German and Finnish Government last year, and was described by leading NGOs as a toxic ‘super pollutant’ and a ‘Frankenstein fuel,’ for the experimental chemical mixtures that were used to make these fuels.
Freedom of Information inquiries by Greenpeace has obtained memos and documents between Government agencies who believed that a coordinated effort was taking place to minimize liability over the oil spill in Mauritius. When BP was approached for help by Australian authorities, Government scientists said that BP did not provide samples of their VLSFO fuel oil to allow the oil spill modelling to be completed.
Until now, BP has still not provided the sample of the fuel for the Wakashio to Mauritian or Australian authorities who first requested the sample of VLSFO fuel in August. This sample is critical to understand the long term effects of the oil on the marine ecosystem of Mauritius, as well as to understand the health implications for the populations who had been exposed. To date, one in six of those exposed to the fuel are showing serious health symptoms. A spokesperson for AMSA said on January 11 that they had only obtained samples of engine oil and not VLSFO, which was the main oil that was spilled in Mauritius.
MOL issued a statement on 18 December and 18 January in which they said there was no mechanical issues with the large Japanese bulk carrier. The CEO of MOL then gave the example of the Wakashio sailing close to land off the coast of Indonesia. Ikeda also mentioned that the Wakashio had made a small course correction on 23 July.
This means that MOL has been in possession of the full satellite analysis trajectory of the Wakashio, and would have seen the Wakashio coming to a halt on July 17, during this unexplained five and a half hour window.
Since October, MOL have been asked several important operational questions that have not been responded to. These questions include:
1. What was the cause of the change of direction of the Wakashio on July 21?
2. Were there any other anomalies in the journey from Singapore to Mauritius?
3. How does MOL account for no voice beyond recorded on the Voyage Data Recorder (the ship’s ‘black box’), and what offers of assistance has MOL provided to attempt to extract the relevant data?
4. Who was responsible for route planning, and when did MOL first become aware that the Wakashio was deviating off its planned course?
5. Were MOL aware of any potential issues on board the Wakashio, and did MOL inform the Mauritius coastguard of the arrival of the Wakashio?
6. At the time of refueling, did MOL conduct its own analysis on the fuel on board the Wakashio, and what was its findings?
7. Why has the BP VLSFO oil not been chemically fingerprinted?
8. Will the Captain’s noon reports be released?
9. Who provided the navigation system (ECDIS) on the Wakashio, including the maps?
10. given that MOL had chartered the Wakashio since it was commissioned in 2007, when was the last time MOL conducted an inspection of the Wakashio, and what were the findings?
There are likely to be several reports produced for the Wakashio.
With the satellite findings of another major and unexplained incident that occurred in the final journey from Singapore to Mauritius, it is clear there are still more questions than answers to explain how the Wakashio ended up where it did and what the true extent of damage from the oil spill and salvage operation really is.