Middle Ground. That's the name the Coast Guard has given to the spot where MSC Chitra collided with MV Khalijia – III, three kilometres off the Mumbai shore on Saturday.
On Monday, when a Hindustan Times team sailed out to the spot, the sea seemed unusually calm as the precariously listing Chitra swayed with the waves. Miraculously, the containers, stacked high on the bow that was listing at almost a right angle, weren't falling off.
It was in an arc about 500 metres around the vessel where it became clear that the sea was being poisoned by the fuel leaking out of its tanks. A dark froth was visible as the waves crashed against the hull. Though the slick was not visible on the surface, the oil was visible on biscuit packets floating away from the Chitra. A container at the rear of the ship had opened and it was from there that biscuits and chocolates were floating out.
The abandoned ship was completely silent, the only sound coming from the containers that shifted with every wave.
"The ship is perched on a hill right below it," said Deepak Koli, a fisherman who said the fish would not affected by the oil leak.
Koli said the 120 containers that had broken loose were a bigger threat. They could sink fishing boats made of wood. "We heard a container crashed into a boat, damaging it," he said.
Meanwhile, several containers with oil traces reached Uran. Sources said nine containers drifted there, while one was still afloat. "There were large patches of oil at various spots near Uran. However, the slick has not touched the shore," a Coast Guard source said.
At the Geeta Nagar slum, behind Navy Nagar, oil washed up with the high tide. It coated the rocks and even spilled onto the streets with the seawater.
Environmentalists said that if the oil reaches Alibaug it could percolate to the floor of the fragile mangrove patches. The oil could choke the roots and kill the plants. But scientists said the mangroves were more resilient than smaller organisms that would get affected. Removing the oil would be difficult if it binds with the sandy or rocky habitats. Scientists are also worried about the chemicals being sprayed to neutralise the oil.
Deepak Apte, assistant director, Bombay Natural History Society, collected water samples at Rewas and Mandwa, which had oil. "There should be surveys to check on contamination every two days," he said.
Apte said the flora and fauna in inter-tidal areas and shallow waters would be affected. "Oil and toxins will accumulate in smaller fish, which will enter the food chain because larger fish feed on them," said Apte.
Apart from the oil affecting marine life, scientists working in fisheries said oil would obstruct light from penetrating the water. "The absence of photosynthesis will affect the growth of floating plants," said C.S. Purshottaman, head, aquatic environment management division, Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Versova.