Grainy pictures flash on our phones on the night of 25 July. A ship’s crashed on the reef in Pointe d’Esny, the messages read. I pinch and splay the photos with my fingers. I can make out the ship’s frame, yellow glimmers of light, but not much else.
We set out to see the ship for ourselves the next day. There’s only one coastal road in Pointe d’Esny and it is clogged. People from around the island have driven to see the ship. They’ve parked their cars at random – there are no proper parking spaces here.
‘This is what happens when you try to block public access to the beach,’ I tell my husband Antoine. Pointe d’Esny is infamously exclusive. The superbly wealthy inhabitants of this stretch of coast would like the beach to be as private as possible. To get to the public beach you must cross the road and walk through a narrow path set between two grand houses, described only last year by a newspaper as a ‘corridor of shame’.1 Once there you deal with the infuriated faces of some of the residents, who make a point of walking up and down the shore. Some of my friends have been harassed by bungalow owners and their dogs, screamed away. But no screams can turn this crowd away, nor the weather – battering winds and rain can’t stop us from congregating on the beach to watch the wreck.
I thought it’d be smaller. A medium-sized vessel, not a cargo ship. I am stunned by the MV Wakashio’s immensity: longer than the Titanic, almost as long as the Eiffel Tower. Kitesurfers glide across the lagoon, colourful little specks against the hulking metal. My son, who has just turned seven months old, flaps his arms in the wind in delight.
None of us were sure what a cargo ship was doing so close to our shores. Hundreds of thousands of ships pass by Mauritius every year: we’re a dot along a strategic, bustling shipping route.2
‘We have the expertise to deal with this, don’t we?’ I said, staring at the vessel. ‘Contingency plans. Help from the United Nations or whatever. It’d be impossible not to have a plan, right?’ I remembered the grounding of the MV Benita four years ago. The ship had crashed into a reef a few kilometres south from here, after a possible mutiny onboard. The oil was pumped out, the ship salvaged from the lagoon.3
‘Yeah,’ Antoine answers. ‘Some of the residents told me they saw officials going over to the ship in helicopters and boats, rescuing the crew, examining the hull for damage. Lights flashing all night long.’
We wait for an announcement from the government, an action plan, but the days pass by in a kind of stupor. The government had been so swift in tackling the pandemic: after three months of lockdown we remerged from our homes, safe in the knowledge that there were no active cases among us except for those returning from abroad, residing in specialised quarantine centres. Three-hundred-and-thirty-four confirmed cases, ten deaths. Like the pandemic, the crash of the Wakashio wasn’t inconceivable. There were precedents. We were prepared. Surely, we were prepared.
But several high-profile corruption cases had blasted the island in July. Public trust in the government was smashed after it was revealed that officials made money over the bodies of the sick and the dying. Suspicious suppliers were contracted during Covid-19, selling medical equipment at extortionate prices when other cost-friendly alternatives were available. There was also a fraud case involving 700 million Mauritian rupees and members of parliament.4
We aren’t sure what kinds of corruption one could profit from during the grounding of a ship. We hear talk of insurance claims and foreign responsibility. But there’s so much more money to be had in expediting that ship out of our waters, in preserving our coasts. We have our superlative reputation to protect, after all: some of the world’s clearest lagoons, most pristine ecosystems, healthiest fish. Tourism is the heart of the economy. The majority of the island’s most opulent hotels are found on the east coast. Plus, the government is heavily invested in the fishing industry. Our fish exports are a 250-million-dollar business, and parastatal fish farms dot the south-eastern lagoon.5 We are confident that the Wakashio will be removed imminently from the reef: it’s in the government’s self-interest. We hear talk of international assistance and are reassured.
Meanwhile, images show filaments of an oily substance on the shore. Then images show the ship beginning to tilt. The Minister of Fisheries said the photos ‘appeared to be manipulated and deceptive.’ ‘The ship is not sinking and will not sink,’ he said on 5 August 2020.6 All is under control.
The next day thick black streaks coat our lagoon. Oil like lacquer on the water.
Pointe d’Esny: a bay framed by mountains, a lagoon iridescent with shades of blue and violet, water translucent when it is still. Grapefruit-hued sunrises and plump, long beaches.
Before the oil spill, I thought that the greatest risk to our coasts was climate change.
I spent my childhood swimming in Blue Bay, the marine park that lies next to Pointe d’Esny. Twenty years ago, fish accompanied every movement you made underwater. Angelfish, butterfly fish, sleek pavillon cocher burst from coral so richly chromatic that I’d have doubted my memory of the sight, had it not been confirmed by everyone else who’d swum in Blue Bay at the time. The fish overwhelmed my vision, a fin away from my goggles, whorls around my body.
The last time I went swimming in Pointe d’Esny was February 2019, a month before I became pregnant. At the time, my main concern in the waters was encroaching jellyfish, which had smothered every other coastline around the island. Pointe d’Esny was clear.
Antoine and I snorkelled across the lagoon, prodded each other underwater when we spotted signs of health: red- and blue-tipped corals, sunflower-yellow anemones, pink planes of Acropora cytherea. We detected an unusual starfish, deep purple and tentacular, the largest I’d ever seen, echinate, with spikes like a sea urchin.
Later I found out that the starfish’s name is crown of thorns, and they were erupting in number across the lagoon. They eat hard coral, and just one is able to devour ten meters squared of coral a year. The creatures were of great concern when I visited Reef Conservation Mauritius later that month. They told me that the reef was sick, spoke of the necessity of a coral bleaching alert system, the necessity of planting the right coastal vegetation, mangroves, seagrass systems, rehabilitating reefs, zoning lagoons.
Reef Conservation have an educational touring bus called bis lamer. It teaches the public at large about our coastal and marine environments, climate change, conservation efforts. I wish the initiative had existed when I was a child. If I had attended one of the talks, maybe I would have spared the starfish I killed when I was six years old or so. My parents had rented a bungalow in Pointe d’Esny for a week. In the mornings I’d walk along the shore, throwing starfish back into the bay. One morning I thought of keeping one of the starfish for myself. I thought that if it left the ocean it’d turn into clay, just like the starfish I’d seen sold in shops. I hadn’t understood that it would die. I brought it back onto the veranda, let it dry on a slice of basalt rock. By noon it had started to rot. ‘That’s death,’ my mother told me, throwing the starfish in the bin. ‘That’s the smell of death. Never do that again.’
Now death smells of tar and acid. It burns eyes, throats, it makes us sick, makes us faint. Not even the crown of thorns could have survived its onslaught.
‘We should have gone swimming around Pointe d’Esny more often,’ I tell Antoine, as the news of the spill comes in. ‘We should have gone every weekend. We should have taken more pictures.’ As I speak I realise that I am already memorialising the place. Was the sea dead? Can a sea die?
No one sleeps on the night of the spill. We examine aerial photos of the pitiful rubber booms placed by the government. They look like a child’s drawing of a bird, two curves containing almost nothing of the oil. Flecks of rubber in the sea that didn’t even surround the ship, that weren’t even correctly placed. We are incensed. Enraged kitesurfers and grieving fishermen describe how authorities hadn’t taken their knowledge of the sea’s currents into consideration. ‘They wouldn’t listen to us,’ these men repeat.
A citizen-led action plan is developed and implemented before dawn. A Marxist political party and activist group sets up a base on the Mahebourg waterfront. Sometime after midnight they successfully absorb oil using a natural boom prototype they make out of nets and dried sugarcane leaves. By morning hundreds of volunteers come to Mahebourg to help. Word spreads, and in the hours that follow boom-making stations are set up across the island. Some are helmed by private enterprises, others by students; some stations are in sugarcane factories, others right by the sea. Some experiment with different boom fillings: hair seems to work just as well as cane, inspiring Mauritians throughout the country to chop and shave for the cause.
Thousands of Mauritians stuff and knit booms in the next two weeks, some working all night long. Emcees motivate, musicians come to play for free. Some people set up makeshift food stalls, feeding the volunteers. Doctors treat those who’ve come into contact with the oil. Those with the necessary expertise don protective equipment and submerge their bodies in the sea, cleaning oil from the water, pouring it into large plastic buckets. A photo of Thierry Jollivet makes the rounds: the professional diver’s face is matted in oil but the area around his eyes is clean. He looks straight at the camera, his look not one of despair but of can-do courage.
Another image goes viral: a meme, a dog taking itself out for a walk, its leash in its mouth. It encapsulates the spirit of the moment. We’ll have to lead ourselves, I see written time and time again on social media. The government won’t help. It’s up to us. Memes are never innocuous in Mauritius. If you send or post a message on the internet that the government deems an ‘annoyance’, you can be imprisoned for up to ten years.7 There’s an extensive track record of citizens being arrested for ‘annoyances’. New laws introduced during the pandemic now enable the police to enter your home and arrest you without a warrant.8
The prime minister hasn’t shown his face in Mahebourg since the spill. There’s hardly any word at all from the government. It’s unclear what they are doing to help. They issued a communiqué three days after the spill banning citizens from gathering in ‘restricted’ areas affected by oil, effectively making the citizen clean-up operations illegal.
We’re breaking the law just by making booms on the coast. We grow more courageous as we knit, type, talk to each other. We feel bolstered by the international press who cover the disaster closely. They’re not going to arrest us with the world watching, we think. We gather as much information as we can, we speculate. We’re not told how much oil has leaked from the ship, though it’s estimated at around a thousand tonnes. We wonder why the government took no action when the ship crashed onto the reef. Why no oil fingerprinting or other tests had been carried out. We wonder if the ship was carrying something suspicious. Officials say bad weather stopped them from pumping the oil out. The meteorological report says the weather was mostly fine. There are reports that the Wakashio could have been tugged out of the reef on the day of the crash. Anonymous sources at the port say that the disaster was the result of ‘total negligence’.
We still won’t have any answers three months later. But we don’t know that yet. We’re not thinking about what happens in three months. We knit furiously. We’re told that the ship could break apart at any moment. A news station helicopters over to the wreck and films a short video, where we hear the sharp, eerie sound of the hull slowly ripping apart.9
It took the worst ecological disaster in our history to bring us all together like this, all ethnicities, all social classes side by side, knitting, cleaning. I say ‘us’, I write ‘we’, but I can’t participate. It’s unsafe to bring young children near the site of the spill, or to the boom-making stations. I hardly sleep, restless. I too want to help with my hands.
I start a Twitter thread, outlining essential information. I read all the newspapers, the interviews with fishermen and those on the scene, translate and describe each day’s events, sometimes hour by hour. I feel productive. ‘She thinks she’s some kind of reporter,’ laugh my parents, as I go through the newspapers and radio programmes during Sunday lunch. But then I do become a reporter, for NBC. There is no time for pride. I feel desolate, stressed, mostly numb. I am interviewed on my work for the BBC, see myself on television: a thick mess of hair, big teeth, bad lighting. I hear myself on radio, a high-pitched voice like a child. No pride, just a matter-of-fact, steady, grinding conviction that everything that happens here must be reported.
My chest tightens when I speak to fishermen, wildlife directors, oceanographers who don’t hide their devastation on the phone. The whole region affected by the spill is a sanctuary for our wildlife: Pointe d’Esny’s wetlands are a Ramsar site, as is the Blue Bay Marine Park. Just off the coast of Pointe d’Esny is Île aux Aigrettes, an islet that’s home to endemic species of birds, reptiles and plants. The oil coils around the islet like a noose. The Mauritius Wildlife Foundation races to save as many species of animals and plants it can, but Vikash Tatayah, the foundation’s director, says Île aux Aigrettes could very well die since it is made of coral, and coral drinks oil.
Tides carry the oil away from the rich beachfront homes of Pointe d’Esny and into Mahebourg. Black waves bring animals to the town’s shore. Sticky corpses float on the oil.
Mahebourg: the ancient capital; traditional, relatively untouched by frenetic development. It’s still the place where people sit on their flowerpot-adorned balconies drinking tea, watching and commenting on passers-by. The only place where you can eat noodles with local scallops. Its family-run restaurants are lauded in international magazines. The government had a grand, tourist-friendly refurbishment plan for the town before Covid-19.
On the waterfront crowds gather around the Rezistans ek Alternativ base. It’s described as a ‘people’s factory’, a ‘mobilization zone’: people come to make booms, but also create art and discuss the region’s future. The base is adorned with posters expressing grief and anger at the government’s inaction, hope for a people’s revolution.
Residents of the town are anxious. Children can’t go to school because of the smell. Oil laps the shore around Cité La Chaux, a poorer part of Mahebourg. Residents fall ill but the government doesn’t evacuate the area.
Fishermen and boaters don’t know how they’ll survive. They gather at the waterfront base to talk about their future. Their income was already precarious before the spill. Fishermen from other parts of the coast come to join them: the oil has travelled up the east coast, coating mangroves, beaches, animals, their children’s feet.
Everyone on the waterfront has an eye on the helicopters and boats circling the wreck. The ship is hanging by a sliver of metal. There’s some hope all the oil will be pumped out before it breaks in two.
The news of the spill is covered not just by the largest of the international news media, but in places like Vogue. People donate millions, and I am relieved that the money is going to trusted, non-governmental organisations. There are also strange reactions: Lana del Rey posts a filtered, supposedly cryptic picture of the spill. Disaster aesthetics. Her fans wonder if this is the cover art for her next single.
‘You’ve probably been put on some sort of list, so be careful,’ my parents say after I appear on the BBC. I am interviewed along with other Mauritians. The BBC also shows footage of the leader of the opposition criticising the prime minister in parliament. After our appearances, the prime minister is interviewed live by Samantha Simmonds.
‘Critics and many local people are saying that the government hasn’t done enough,’ Simmonds says. ‘They say there’s a huge amount of inaction by the government, and that you owe them an apology.’ She evokes the 2.3 million kilometres squared of maritime space belonging to Mauritius, the necessity of an action plan. The prime minister appears flustered, starts talking about his government’s exemplary handling of the Covid-19 situation and then his connection is cut off.
In the afternoon the prime minister holds a press conference. He prevents two openly dissenting news stations from attending. He is asked questions about his BBC appearance, the apology owed to us. ‘Ou kapav dir mwa kot monn fauter?’ he asks. Can you tell me what I did wrong? ‘Is the BBC a court of investigation?’ he says disdainfully. ‘And who are the people talking on BBC?’ He mentions members of opposing political groups, activists. ‘And then there are other so-called ‘experts’ who say we didn’t do this and that. Kitesurfers have become experts now.’
On 13 August, the day after his interview, police officers prevent the leader of the opposition from holding a press conference in his office in parliament.10 On the coast, a volunteer is pressured by government agents to remove a sign saying, ‘I love my country, I’m ashamed of my government’.11 The slogan goes viral. At night, the BBC interviews the former prime minister and leader of the Labour Party. After a few seconds I’m unable to watch the channel. It has been replaced by a Chinese news station. By the time connection to the BBC is re-established, the interview is out of the news cycle.
I lock the door to my home when I’m inside. I wait for the police to show up, declare that I’ve been charged with an annoyance, hurting my country’s reputation. I sleep even less. I leave my British passport on Antoine’s bedside table, along with a list of journalists and lawyers to contact if ever I’m arrested. I keep a box of formula in the pantry, so that if I’m taken away at least there’s milk for our son.
On 15 August the ship breaks into two. The crowd on the waterfront isn’t watching the wreck, though: policemen have descended upon the Rezistans ek Alternative base to disband their operations. They only back off when the radio starts to report their harassment.
Later in the week, an informal protest is held in front of the Mahebourg court. The Minister of Environment and the Minister of Fisheries are due to appear; Bruneau Laurette, a social activist and maritime security professional, has lodged a case against them. The crowd, mostly comprised of Mahebourgeois, make their grievances known to the MPs as they walk by. That night, two protesters are arrested by the police without a warrant and are jailed.
Port Louis: our capital city. Palm trees and statues, crumbling shops and street art, tin roofs and food stalls, colonial buildings advertising the latest tech, fashion, creative venture.
On 29 August around 100,000 of us fill the city’s streets. It’s the largest protest in Mauritian history. No political party or specific individual is at the helm: it’s all citizen led, though the activist Bruneau Laurette and the Rezistans ek Alternativ party have a large role in shaping the movement.
We’re of all ethnicities and of all ages. Some march with walking sticks. Others are carried on their parent’s shoulders. Those of us abroad watch the protest online and gather in capitals around the world in solidarity. We sing Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’ and the national anthem. We wave the Mauritian flag.
There is a sign that many people carry. The prime minister’s infamous declaration: dir mwa kot monn faute. Tell me where I went wrong. Protesters have turned the statement into bloody stencils.
Against all international recommendations, despite our outcry and outrage, the government sank half of the Wakashio in great haste on 24 August. Two days later, melon-headed whales washed up around the south-eastern coast. Dead, mutilated, glossy bodies. Authorities haul them onto the back of pickup trucks, tails hanging out. Authorities cover them in white sheets. Videos of dying whales bobbing helpless in the ocean. Video of a mother whale trying to nudge her dying baby above the waves so that it can breathe; she watches as it dies, then dies a little while later, too. Fishermen say the ship was sunk in a whale breeding ground, that some of the corpses they found were of pregnant females.
The images choke us. We shake, we cry. We carry dolphin plush toys, plastic blow-up dolphins, dolphin art to the march. Authorities say neither the spill nor the scuttling had anything to do with the fifty-one deaths. We chant bour li dehors. Get them the fuck out of here. Get the government the fuck out of here.
The prime minister says the march showed that ‘democracy was alive and working’, but the government’s Facebook page mocks protesters in a series of memes. On the night before the second major protest of 12 September, social media accounts of activist groups and journalists are hacked. In October, Bruneau Laurette’s requests to protest are systematically denied. Attempts are made to arrest him.
Before the spill I thought my son’s first proper meal would be fish and rice; our fish, once considered some of the finest in the world. Now when I buy fish I make sure that it’s imported. Parastatal fish farms are still readily selling their produce, since officials don’t believe that they were contaminated.12
Hydrocarbons were found in the whales’ bodies, and they suffered some kind of barotraumatic pressure – likely the result of the scuttling of the ship, if dynamite was used. The government has never specified where the Wakashio was sunk, and where. The necropsy report on the whales’ deaths will not be made public, either.
It is summer. Our reservoirs are almost empty. It is too hot for jeans, which stick to my skin. Too hot for make-up. Too hot to do anything but swim on the weekends.
I’d planned my son’s first proper swim soon after he was born. We’d been told to wait until he was six months old, but that would be June, winter in Mauritius. It’d be too cold. We thought that the beginning of summer would be ideal. Antoine and I would drive down to Pointe d’Esny a little after dawn. We’d sit on the edge of the shore. The waves would lap around my son’s suncreamed thighs. Perhaps we’d see a starfish or two in the water. He’d splash his hands and kick and laugh.
I take my son to Pointe d’Esny late in January, just for a few minutes. The front half of the ship is still there, on the coral reef. The authorities say that oil-cleaning operations have been successfully completed. I walk timidly to the shore, my baby in my arms. The sea is luminous, coloured like a slice of blue agate. It is clear. It wets my feet and I flinch. There’s no question of my son swimming here for another decade.
I remember watching two young boys in Palmar last year: they’d emerged from the sea, had shaken most of the saltwater off their bodies, and were carefully reclothing themselves in stiff white shirts and black trousers. Perhaps they’d briefly escaped a ceremony of some sort to find relief in the water. They’d be itchy in the hours to come: the fabric of their shirts would chafe against their skin, their hair would be crisp and stiff with salt. But they thought their discomfort was worth it for those ten minutes of joy.
Images © Pierre Dalais