23 Feb 1980



The Greek tanker IRENES SERENADE loaded with a cargo of 102,660 tonnes of Iraqi crude oil (Kirkuk Blend) and en route from Syria to Trieste called in to refuel in Navarino Bay, Greece. On 23rd February 1980, whilst at anchor at the bunkering location, the vessel suffered explosions in the forecastle which set the cargo alight. An oil slick two miles long by half a mile wide spread from the vessel and both the tanker and the surrounding water burned for 14 hours until the following morning when the tanker sank off Pylos Harbour, close to Sfakteria Island. All but two crew members were rescued. Fishing gear on the jetty was destroyed in the fire and the hillside of Sfakteria Island was scorched to a height of 30 metres. The bunkering installation on the island was also damaged as a result of the fire.


Hundreds of tonnes of spilled oil were observed within the bay and it was established that this oil was the viscous residue from the fire. A less extensive slick of relatively fresh oil was observed surfacing from the wreck. A diving survey  one day after the sinking revealed that all the cargo tanks were open to sea and  virtually no cargo remained except in isolated pockets and as residues within the fabric of the wreck. The greater portion of oil escaping from the wreck was identified as bunkers emanating from the engine room section, estimated to be approximately 1000 tonnes in total.


A considerable amount of oil, with an estimated volume of 10-20,000 tonnes, was observed in the open sea during aerial surveillance two days after the vessel sank. In the absence of further sightings or reports, it was assumed that the bulk oil broke up at sea and dissipated naturally.


Within Navarino Bay, pockets of oil-in-water emulsion were observed along rocky shorelines. Several sand and pebble beaches eventually became oiled and at a few locations oil became mixed with large quantities of seaweed deposited on the beaches by waves. Smaller quantities of floating oil carried out of the bay during a period of several weeks leading to contamination up to 100 km away, notably on sandy beaches.


Navarino Bay is in an area of scenic beauty and a site of archaeological and historic significance. Possible damage to the tourist industry was judged to be the main concern and therefore amenity beaches were prioritised in the clean-up operations. Damage to local fisheries appeared to be less significant as fishing along the coast was generally poor and had declined over the previous 20 years.


The clean-up operation involved handling the burnt oil residue, the water-in-oil emulsion as well as fresh bunker fuel. Clean-up activities centred on removing oil from the water surface close to the sunken wreck, rocky shorelines accessible only from the sea and sandy beaches with road access.


Booms were placed downwind of the wreck immediately following the incident to restrict the spread of surfacing oil, which was subsequently recovered using skimmers. A sweeping arm deployed from a coastal tanker was also used to recover the free-floating oil escaping from the wreck.


Protective booms had been deployed at the entrance of Pylos Harbour. While some boom worked well, in general, they were not strong enough to withstand the chafing on the rocks and the strain of the wind and waves. The oil that became stranded on rocky shorelines was highly viscous and emulsified. Small fishing boats, each with a team of 4-6 men using long-handled scoops were recruited to lift stranded and sunken oil from rocky shores into oil drums placed on deck.


On sandy beaches, oil was collected with shovels into plastic bags or oil drums.  Only the beaches that had road access and were frequented by the public were cleaned. More than 50,000 bags were filled, although a large amount of the collected material was sand.


A serious disposal problem developed with the accumulation of bags and drums in numerous places. The authorities experienced difficulties in assigning a final disposal site and the clean-up operation was underway for two weeks before it was agreed that the waste could be taken to a mining site at Megalopolis, some 100 km away in central Peloponnese. Thus, the transport of collected material was both protracted and costly.


Clean-up activities were most intense during the first six weeks following the incident with up to 17 vessels and 400 people involved during the peak period. By mid-April, when the main clean-up phase was completed, most of the mechanical oil collection devices were removed from the site. The boom was left around the wreck and the Coast Guard kept on a reduced team with equipment to collect the small amounts of oil still being released in Navarino Bay.


The continuous seepage of oil from the wreck prompted the decision by the Greek government to use explosives on the wreck to liberate trapped oil. This operation was carried out almost a year after the incident with measures taken to deal with the oil thus released. Contamination of shorelines was negligible.


Selected Bibliography

  • Hooke, N. (1997) Maritime casualties, 1963-1996.  2nd edition, LLP Limited, London

Categories: Oil, Europe, Oil Tanker, Greece

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