Oil from a huge Chinese ship which ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef has washed up at a famed nature sanctuary, officials said on Wednesday, raising fears for birds and baby turtles.
Clean-up crews and environmental experts were helicoptered to North West Island, Australia - a breeding site for seabirds and turtles - where small clumps of oil were found on a beach.
The 230-metre (750-foot) Shen Neng 1 leaked about two tonnes of oil after blundering into the reef on April 3, angering officials who have promised stiff punishment. The giant coal-carrier was re-floated and towed away on Monday.
"It hasn't come ashore in large globules or carpets," Patrick Quirk, general manager of Marine Safety Queensland, told public broadcaster ABC. "Our advice from the rangers on the island is that it's at the top of the tide line in patches, and that gives us some comfort."
Queensland's state transport minister Rachel Nolan said experts flying over the island had reported only a "very small amount" of oil and said the contamination appeared to be isolated.
"Flights over the island this morning could not detect any further oil in the water," she said.
However, Environment Protection Minister Peter Garrett feared oil may also have hit other islands. "I'm certainly very concerned that some of the neighbouring islands there, like Tryon Island, might also have also been contaminated," he said.
Conservationists describe North West Island as a globally important nesting site for seabirds and green and loggerhead turtles, which are currently hatching and travelling down the beach.
Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said even small amounts of oil can affect wildlife. "We are talking about oil reaching a coral key which is globally important for seabird breeding and the nesting of green and loggerhead turtles. Unfortunately this is the time of year we have turtle hatchlings going down the beach...so that is a real concern," he said.
Australian officials have expressed anger after the Shen Neng 1 smashed into part of the world heritage-listed reef at full speed, accusing the crew of taking an illegal route.
Heavy fuel oil leaking out of the giant ship, carrying 68,000 tonnes of coal to China, created a three-kilometre slick which was cleared with chemical dispersants. The vessel also carved a kilometres-long gouge and plastered toxic paint from its hull over the delicate coral reef, which experts say could take 20 years to recover.
Officials are probing claims that ships ferrying Australia's resources to Asia are taking short-cuts through the world's biggest coral reef, which is already under pressure from rising sea temperatures and pollution.