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The small Goukamma Nature Reserve  ( just 2 500 hectares),  located between Knysna and George in South Africa’s Southern Cape is one of the least-known protected areas in the country. However it became the centre of attention on the 9th of August this year, when the 182-metre Kiani Satu cargo vessel ran aground just offshore of Goukamma’s pristine beaches.

The Kiani Satu getting smashed by heavy swell, after it ran aground off Goukamma’s beaches. © Keith Spencer (CapeNature)

The German-owned vessel was carrying 15 000 tons of rice, and about 200 tons of fuel oil, which is essentially sticky tar. About 50 tons leaked out of the vessel, and some of it ended up blackening the beaches of the reserve and covering the ocean surface of the marine protected area, which extends 1 nautical mile offshore.

On the 21st of August, the vessel was towed 110 nautical miles out to sea and sunk in 1 000 metres of water. Fortunately, in that time, several storms passed through the area and the heavy wave action broke up the oil on the beaches.

I recently spent time with reserve manager Keith Spencer and insurance assessor Byron Elkington, walking the beaches of Goukamma to see what pollution remained. Keith was pleasantly surprised that a lot of the oil has been removed already, mostly by natural processes, but also by the hardworking cleanup teams, who have collected several tons of oiled sand.

clean up teams-goukamma-reserve
The cleanup teams, hard at work on Goukamma’s beaches.
Goukamma Nature Reserve - South Africa
Hundreds of plastic bags were filled with oiled sand by the clean up teams.

‘When the oil first hit the beaches,’ Keith said  ‘we could smell it as we walked over the dunes onto the shore. It was that sharp petrol-type smell that you get when filling up your car. There was a line of black all along the beach, and we were expecting the worst. Fortunately, nature played along, and the stormy seas helped us clean up the beaches.’

What’s concerning for Keith, though, is that some of the oil was covered over by sand, so that even if the beaches look clean on the surface, there is still some pollution buried underneath. That’s why cleanup operations will continue for a few months, because tidal action will continuously remove and add sand to the beaches, exposing the oil.

Fortunately, according to Byron, the insurers of the vessel have paid for all cleaning and emergency operations, and will continue to do so. As Byron explained, there’s no limit to damages claimed from oil pollution.

What of the marine protected area, and it’s pristine ocean life?

‘Oil will sit on the surface of the ocean,’Keith explained, ‘so it’s unlikely that any fish or subsurface marine life will suffer. But you never know what the long-term effects will be.’

The mouth of the Goukamma River was closed off with a boom to prevent oil from entering the estuary, and for the most part, the river system was spared any damage. The oil didn’t only affect Goukamma; the currents carried the pollution 300 kms to the Cape gannet nesting colony at Bird Island off Addo Elephant National Park. This is the world’s largest Cape gannet colony, and one of only a few remaining. Nearby is the small St Croix Island which is home to the largest colony of endangered African penguins.

According to SANCCOB, 112 oiled African penguins, 172 oiled Cape gannets and one oiled White-breasted cormorant were captured and admitted for cleaning. So far, 47 Cape gannets have been cleaned and released back into the wild. Keith told me that a few Cape fur seal pups were seen with oil on their coats, but capturing them for cleaning proved too difficult.

So while the insurers are ready to pay out for financial damages incurred, what is the cost of the damage to endangered species like African penguins and Cape gannets? After all, these species have a hard enough time as it is, regardless of whether a German vessel is spewing oil into their natural habitat.

Is it time for a sizeable fine to be imposed on the owners of the Kiani Satu to cover ‘the cost to nature’? As leading environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan indicates in his book; Wild Law – nature and our fellow species should have legal rights too, even if the law doesn’t currently acknowledge them.

Consider this: if a large boat spilled 50 tons of oil directly onto a group of people, I have no doubt that the boat’s owners would be sued left, right and centre! Should nature not have the same option? The funds from a large fine could be invested in expanding protected areas, buying patrol vessels and training conservation staff.

For now, I’m just glad that Goukamma is on the mend. I’ve been walking the 14 kilometres of beaches for two days, and they seem mostly clean. It’s incredible to think that just a month ago there was so much oil lying around. I’ve noticed several pairs of Oystercatchers feeding happily in the rock pools, surely a sign that – for the most part – Goukamma is back to it’s beautiful best.

The Goukamma River estuary
The Goukamma River estuary.
Looking west along Goukamma beach. The Kiani Satu ran aground just to the left of this photo.
Looking west along Goukamma beach. The Kiani Satu ran aground just to the left of this photo.
Looking east towards the mouth of the Goukamma River
Looking east towards the mouth of the Goukamma River
Scott Ramsay

Photojournalist Scott Ramsay focuses on exploring the national parks, nature reserves and community conservancies in Southern Africa, taking photographs and interviewing the experts who work in these protected areas. Through his work, he hopes to inspire others to travel to the continent's wild places, which Scott believes are Africa's greatest long term assets. For more, go to or Partners include Ford Ranger, Goodyear, Cape Union Mart, K-Way, EeziAwn, Frontrunner, Hetzner and Globecomm.