Dead turtles, dolphins and whales washed ashore in Sri Lanka after ship fire

About a hundred turtle carcasses with throat and shell injuries as well as a dozen dead dolphins and a blue whale were washed ashore in Sri Lanka after a container ship burned and sank, raising fears of a major environmental disaster.

Environmentalists believe the animal deaths were caused directly by the fire and the release of dangerous chemicals when the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl burned for 12 days and sank last week off Sri Lanka’s main port in the capital, Colombo. However, government officials said those causes have been confirmed “tentatively” and the investigation is ongoing.

The fire on the ship began on May 20, and dead marine life began to behed ashore a few days later.

In the ship’s manifest, it said 81 of the ship’s nearly 1,500 containers contained “dangerous” cargo.

The Sri Lankan Navy believes the fire was caused by chemical cargo, much of which was destroyed by fire. But the ship’s wreckage, including burnt fiberglass and tons of plastic pellets, heavily contaminated the surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation’s famous beaches.

Postmortem analysis of the carcasses is being conducted by five state labs and separately by the Department of Government Analysts, said a Wildlife Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“Preliminarily we can say that these deaths were caused in two ways — the first by heat burns and the second by chemicals. That’s obvious,” said Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the Ministry of the Environment.

He refrained from giving the exact cause, saying that “autopsy analysis is still being conducted.”

Tushan Kapurusinghe of the Turtle Conservation Project blamed fire and the chemicals the ship was transporting for the turtles’ deaths.

Kapurusinghe, who has more than three decades of turtle conservation experience, said the dead turtles were bleeding from their mouths and throats, and “parts of their shells had burns and erosion marks.”

The sea off the coast of Sri Lanka and its coastline are home to five species of turtles, which regularly come here to lay their eggs. March through June is the peak of turtle arrival season.

Lalit Ekanayake, a marine and coastal ecologist, suspects, based on the nature of the fire and the amount of chemicals, that “at least 400 turtles may have died and their carcasses may have sunk into the sea or gone into the depths of the sea.”

Sri Lanka plans to seek compensation from X-Press Feeders, the ship’s owner, and has already filed an interim claim for $40 million.