The Braer - The Oil

Fortunately for Shetland, the Gulfaks crude the Braer was carrying is not a typical North Sea oil. It is lighter and more easily biodegradable than other North Sea crude's, and this, in combination with some of the worst storms seen in Shetland (naturally dispersing the oil by wave action and evaporation), prevented the event becoming an even bigger disaster. The following is a brief account of the spread and eventual dispersion of the oil

Tuesday, 5th January (the first day)

Following the grounding, the first aerial surveillance flight was underway by 2.45pm. At this stage oil was observed drifting into Quendale Bay from Garths Ness. No counter-pollution measures were taken at sea on this day. The wind during the day was S to SW with a mean speed of 45 mph, gusting up to 90 mph.

Wednesday, 6th January

WRC volunteers reported large numbers of near-shore fish and invertebrates washed ashore with thick brown floating oil in Quendale Bay during the early morning. Aerial surveillance reported thick floating oil between Siggar Ness and Sumburgh, although in the West Voe of Sumburgh the oil comprised broken sheens. Sheens were present on the west coast, and observed as far north as May Wick by 3pm. The Marine Pollution Control Unit (MPCU) carried out a trial dispersant spraying just after 10 am, which successfully dispersed some of the oil. MPCU Dakotas then commenced spraying of non-dispersed floating oil, although only 100 tonnes of dispersant were used until the operations ceased around 3.45pm. Sprayed oil was observed to disperse to rainbow sheens, The wind during the day had moved to the WSW with a mean spread of 35 mph, gusting up to 88 mph.

MPCU Dakota spraying dispersant, 6th January 1993.
Photo by RSPB

Thursday, 7th January

The morning surveillance flight indicated that oil had reached the southern tip of Burra Isle on the west coast and Lambhoga Head on the east coast. A helicopter was used to spray a very small quantity of dispersant near the wreck, but this had to be abandoned due to the adverse weather conditions, and no other spraying took place. A surveillance flight at 3pm showed no northward movement of oil since the morning. The wind was SW during the day with a mean speed of 36 mph, gusting to 68 mph,

Friday, 8th January

Further deterioration of the weather occurred and the first sheens were observed in Loch of Spiggie. Waves of up to 10m high were reported to be dispersing the oil naturally. Sheens of oil were observed as far north as Scalloway on the west coast, and heavy sheens were reported near fish farms in Clift Sound. Thin streaks of light sheen were reported on the east coast, as far north as Mousa although there was little northwards movement of oil (only about a half-mile on the west coast) during the day. No spraying took place. The wind was WSW with a mean speed of 41 mph gusting to 85 mph.

Saturday, 9th January

A major new release of oil appeared to have occurred overnight. Sheen had spread as far north as the southern tip of Bressay on the east coast, and Weisdale Voe and Sand Voe on the west coast. This appears to have been the maximum extent of surface oil movement observed during the spill. This was the last day on which spraying took place, and 20 tonnes of dispersant were used. The wind was mainly WSW with a mean speed of 33 mph knots gusting to 65 mph.

Sunday, 10th January

No counter-pollution activity was possible due to the strongly gusting winds and aerial surveys indicated little oil on the sea's surface, except neat the wreck. Sheens were observed just north of Foraness, on the west coast, and Lambogha Head, on the east coast. Considerable natural dispersion was observed to have occurred. The wind was predominantly SW with a mean speed of 35 mph gusting to 91 mph.

Monday, 11th January

The vessel broke up during the day, and a massive release of oil occurred during the afternoon heavy hydrocarbon odour was reported as far north as Lerwick during the evening. Infra-red imagery had suggested that a large part of the cargo was still in the vessel until the ship broke up. The extent of the oil on the surface was similar to the previous day, although heavy oil concentrations were reported between Siggar Ness and Sumburgh Head. The wind was SSW with a mean speed of 40 mph gusting to 71 mph,

Tuesday, 12th January

The vessel broke into three sections and the remaining cargo was released. The weather conditions were severe, and the surveillance flight could not be made until 2pm. Considerable physical dispersion of oil occurred. Brown foam was reported in the surf zone along the west coast. The wind was WSW with a mean speed of about 37 mph gusting to 79 mph,

Wednesday, 13th January and after

Aerial surveillance on the 13th indicated no change in the extent of surface oil pollution from the previous day, although sheens and brown foam in the surf zone were less noticeable. Regular surveillance flights by MPCU continued until the 25th January, with Sullom Voe Terminal helicopter flights thereafter.

Loch of Spiggie, an RSPB reserve, was threatened by oil during high tides. A boom and later a sand and earth dyke were used to prevent the ingress of oil. Photo by RSPB

The level of visible surface pollution declined throughout the second week after the grounding, although some fresh oil appeared to escape from the vessel on the 15th January, while a small release of lubricating oil or hydraulic fluid was observed on the 19th January.

On the east Mainland coast silver sheens were seen in the immediate vicinity of Sumburgh Head on the 15th and 16th January, although with the exception of these observations, the east coast was reported to be largely free of surface oil pollution. On the west coast, silver streaks, rainbow sheens and brown foam were reported along large parts of the coast, as far west as Giltarump from the 14th-18th January. On the 19th January, the extent of the sheens and brown foam was limited to the coastline between the Bay of Scousburgh to Skelda Ness on the west coast. From then on, areas of silver streaks were seen in the vicinity of Burra and Oxna, but never west of Skelda Ness, while brown foam was frequently observed as late as early February, particularly off west Burra.

Minor releases of very small quantities of oil (probably of the order of 10-100 litres). mainly comprising hydraulic fluids or lubricating oils, continued into the first week of February. The weather continued to be bad through to the 3rd week of January with predominantly SW winds with a mean speed of around 35 knots, although the 13th and the 17th saw more exceptional gales with winds gusting over 100 mph.

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