Mystery deepens over journey of Cork 'ghost ship' as council assures no environmental threat

Any owners of the ghost ship the MV Alta have up to a year to reclaim it, with the abandoned vessel to undergo an initial assessment on Tuesday morning as mystery deepens over its recent past.

Mystery deepens over journey of Cork 'ghost ship' as council assures no environmental threat

Any owners of the ghost ship the MV Alta have up to a year to reclaim it, with the abandoned vessel to undergo an initial assessment on Tuesday morning as mystery deepens over its recent past.

The 77metre-long ship came aground on rocks west of Ballycotton on Saturday due to the force of Storm Dennis, but its unconventional journey to Irish shores has grabbed international media attention.

First built in 1976, the cargo ship appears to have drifted around the Atlantic Ocean for the past 18 months.

Now snagged on rocks, Cork County Council has been coordinating efforts to ensure it poses no risk to the environment or marine traffic, even as questions mount over how it managed to sail for such a distance without a crew and without being tracked.

According to the local authority, Cork County Council’s Oil Spill Assessment Team convened again shortly after noon today as part of its Oil Spill Contingency Plan in response to the grounding of the cargo ship, which most recently was flying under the flag of Tanzania.

According to a local authority spokesperson: "Cork County Council’s Environmental Scientists have visited the area and are satisfied that there is currently no visible pollution within the Ballycotton Bay Special Protection Area or nearby proposed Natural Heritage Areas.

"Cork County Council has consulted with the Coast Guard in terms of pollution risk and the parties have agreed to have an initial assessment of pollution risk carried out. The council has requested its marine contractor to carry out this initial assessment of the wreck.

"Following an appropriate risk assessment, the contractor will board the vessel at the next suitable opportunity which is expected to be at low tide tomorrow morning, Tuesday, February 18 at approximately 7am.

"Any risk in relation to oil, other hazardous substances and pollution from the vessel will be evaluated."

The Council spokesperson said consultations are continuing between the Irish Coastguard, the local authority, the Receiver of Wrecks and other relevant bodies in relation to the future of the ship.

The Council spokesperson added that members of the public should stay away from the wreck location "as it is located on a dangerous and inaccessible stretch of coastline and is in an unstable condition".

The Receiver of Wrecks is likely to be entrusted with the task of identifying the owner of the MV Alta, although given its recent history that may prove difficult.

A spokesperson for the Revenue Commissioners, said: "Revenue’s role as ‘Receiver of Wreck’ is a statutory function provided for in the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 and is discharged on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

"The provisions of the Act outline the procedures the Receiver of Wreck must undertake to try to establish ownership of the salvage or wreck landed in Ireland.

"Additionally, the legislation states that a person may establish a claim to ownership within one year from the time the wreck came into the receiver's possession. As such, this process may take some time and there is no further update available at present.

"Revenue’s immediate priority is to allow the agencies responsible for pollution protection and maritime traffic to assess and manage any environmental risk or potential hazard to other maritime stakeholders."

Late last August the British Royal Navy's HMS Protector came across the Alta, which it described as an abandoned merchant vessel.

A message relayed by the Navy ship said: "We closed the vessel to make contact and offer our assistance, but no one replied! Whilst investigations continue we're unable to give you more detail on this strange event."

Almost a year earlier, on September 30, 2018, the US Coast Guard was notified that the Alta had become disabled some weeks before on September 19, while transiting from Greece to Haiti.

According to a report at that time, the Coast Guard Cutter Confidence rescued 10 crew members from the ship, which was almost 1,400 miles southeast of Bermuda.

By then the crew had been stranded on the disabled vessel for almost three weeks and were down to a few day's supply of food and enough water to cover a few weeks.

The HC-130 Hercules airplane from Coast Guard Air station Elizabeth City dropped a week's worth of supplies, before the Confidence rescued the men in October 2018.

At the time the commanding officer of the Confidence, Cmdr Travis Emge, was reported by the USCG as saying: "We are all proud of our part in this coordinated Coast Guard response to rescue this crew."

It said that the Coast Guard's Fifth District command centre was working to coordinate with the ship owner for a commercial tug to tow the vessel to safety.

A spokesman for the US Coast Guard told the Irish Examiner: "On Oct. 8, 2018 the Fifth Coast Guard District coordinated the rescue of 10 crewmembers from the Tanzanian-flagged cargo ship Alta via the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Confidence in international waters approximately 1,380 miles southeast of Bermuda as the position of the vessel at the time of the distress was within the Norfolk Region Coordination Center's Search and Rescue Region. Weather conditions and equipment limitations made it unsafe to tow the vessel at the time of the rescue. Due to the location of the vessel and its flag, the U.S. Coast Guard did not have jurisdictional authority to conduct any salvage enforcement in the matter."

That does not appear to have happened. Another online report suggested that the vessel may then have been hijacked and brought to British Guiana, before again going missing.

According to the Vessel Finder website, the registered owner of the Alta is a company called Alta Sg LLC.

A Company called ALTA Shipping & Logistics, based in the UAE, said when contacted by the Irish Examiner that it was not the company that owned the vessel.

Aerial still taken from Irish Coast Guard video
Aerial still taken from Irish Coast Guard video

Alta Shipping Brokers, based in Madrid, also said it did not own the vessel. "Definitively, no," a staff member said.

He then offered to check via the system used by all large cargo firms to see if he could track its recent history, but he said it did not show up at all, either under Alta or its previous names of Elias or Avantis.

In total, the ship appears to have had six different owners since it was built.

Environmental organisation Coastwatch said international help would now be needed to help deal with the Alta and said there should also be a review of how abandoned ships and containers and handled.

Karin Dubsky, Director of Coastwatch, said: "The Irish South coast is of immense biodiversity value and large tracks are designated as Natura 2000 sites, many of international importance for seabirds.

If this ship built in the 1970s was to start breaking apart or leaking it would be a serious problem in an inaccessible area adjacent to most valuable bays, saltmarshes and mudflats.

Coastwatch said it took little comfort from assurances by Cork County Council that the Alta did not appear to pose an environmental hazard, saying they were concerned about the possible presence of heavy diesel on board.

Cork Coastwatch surveyor Mary Looby, who observed the ship, said: "She is swaying in the waves among rocky outcrops."

The organisation also queried how the Alta could have landed onto the Irish shore without being tracked.

It posed a number of questions, including: "How can an abandoned ship be left drifting northwards in the Atlantic towards Europe, gas and oil platforms, wind turbines and land for over a year without being ‘caught’ and made safe?"

It also questioned whether there was a gap in international law which allows a ship to drift with no active position recording to track it, and also asked which government Minister here is actually responsible for an uninsured ship, while at sea or on the shore.

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