Timor Sea Oil Spill: Among Three Worst Oil Spills in Australian History

Written by on October 30, 2009 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law
Timor Sea satellite picture - Australia-Indonesia - Credit: NASA

Timor Sea satellite picture – Australia-Indonesia – Credit: NASA

The Timor Sea oil spill, according to Senator Rachel Siewert among the three worst in Australian history, is continuing, apparently unabated, and now the Australian Senate has asked the Federal Environment Minister today to produce all the reports and drafts related to a marine survey on the environmental impacts of the spill by Monday, 16 November.

Not only are the causes of the spill still unknown, but it is also unclear how much oil is being released into the ocean.  Estimates vary between 400 and 2000 barrels a day.  PTTEP Australasia’s claim of 400 barrels a day is said to be based on a visual estimation.  The Resources and Energy Department has told an Australian Senate committee that at maximum the rig could leak out as much as 2,000 barrels a day.  Listen to last weeks’ ABC News interview with Senator Rachel Siewert.

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), the only independent and transparent monitoring at the site of the spill has been carried out by WWF.  Their survey of the spill site has documented 430 sightings of cetaceans, including pan-tropical spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, as well as spinner dolphins, sighted within the oil slick.

Timor Sea Oil Spill, satellite image and closeup acquired October 28, 2009 - Credit: NASA

Timor Sea Oil Spill, satellite image and closeup acquired October 28, 2009 – Credit: NASA

According to scientists, whales and dolphins are not affected by oil spillage in the same way birds are when their plumage is covered in oil and loses its insulation properties.  These marine mammals use their blubber layer for insulation, but ingestion and inhalation are inevitable when animals are in close or direct contact with a spill and will equally harm them.  The large baleen whales can suffer from oiling of their baleen.  Ingestion through prey and damage to the food web are also possibilities.

Mark Simmonds, WDCS International’s Director of Science said whales and dolphins are unlikely to avoid oil spills.  Though apparently bottlenose dolphins have been observed during a fresh spill and can detect slick and mousse oils but did not react to lighter sheen oil.  Dolphin groups hesitated and milled when they encountered slick oil, eventually diving under small patches but continuing through extensive areas.

The affected area is being closely monitored by daily flights arranged by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).  Satellite pictures showed the oil had crossed into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, but not its territorial waters.  Reports have stated that the oil spill could have an impact on the livelihood of seaweed farmers on Rote Island and fishers in Indonesian waters.  Indonesian officials have taken part in a daily observation flight aboard the AMSA search and rescue aircraft.

Indonesia: Roti Island is located at the SW tip of East Timor island

Indonesia: Roti Island is located at the SW tip of East Timor island


There have been four unsuccessful attempts to plug the oil leak, the latest has been put off to a later day due to a technical failure.

WDSC International is asking the Australian Government to hold the oil and gas industry accountable and to freeze all new oil and gas exploration applications until a comprehensive plan to safe wildlife is in place and critical habitat is secured in a network of marine sanctuaries.


Read the news article Expedition observes hundreds of marine creatures in oil slick from WWF Australia.

Read about the WA Oil Spill Impact on Indonesian Fishing on Senator Rachel Siewert’s Greens website.

Read a different report on United Press Internaional.

Read a related report on Australia’s Network News.

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Subscribe via RSS Feed Find MST on Instagram Connect with MST on Google Plus

Comments are closed.