Category Archives: UNESCO World Heritage

3D Film Features Monarch Butterflies’ Mighty Migration

3D film captures this awesome journey plus tour operators that enable visitors to see it

MonarchButterflyI recently attended a screening of “Flight of the Butterflies,” a captivating IMAX 3D film, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science at the invitation of the Mexico Tourism Board. Other than a little anthropomorphism (giving a name to one particular monarch butterfly out of the millions  millions photographed) and an audience-pleasing dramatization of researchers’ efforts to discover where the monarchs’ annual migration route led, this film is a dazzling documentary that follows the life cycle including the 2,500-mile migration undertaken by four generations of these beautiful insects .

The monarchs who live east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in the 200-square-mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to hibernate in dense clusters hanging from oyamel fir trees. In spring, they migrate north through Texas where they lay their eggs on milkweed leaves and finally to the northern United States and Canada in the warm months. The 2,500-mile migration of these fragile insects is the longest of any insect in the world. The film captures each of four-generation life cycle, which is also explained on an illuminating monarch butterfly website. (Monarchs west of the Rockes overwinter in California’s eucalyptus forests, in case you’re wondering.)


Recently, there have been reports that this winter’s population in Mexico had dropped precipitously from just last year. “Mexico monarch butterfly population smallest in years, study says,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “The amount of land occupied by the migrating creatures shrank 59% from a year ago, scientists say. The decline could hurt tourism and the ecosystem.” I have to add: To say nothing of hurt to the butterfly hordes themselves, which suffer due to weather incidents and expanding human populations and with that, loss of habitat and disappearance of critical host plants. The most recent major decline in 2010 was attributed to severe storms. Unless monarch butterflies are close to being eradicated, recovery can be rapid — in theory anyway — because females all lay several hundred eggs. Conservation efforts therefore are concentrated on milkweed that the monarchs need.

MonarchButterflyReserveNeverthess, the World Wildlife Fund, which knows a lot more than I do, has declared the monarchs an endangered species. The organization recommends two particular week-long tours whose highlight is butterfly viewing: The Kingdom of the Monarchs (“Witness the amazing migration of 300 million butterflies. Itinerary highlights Angangueo, Valle de Bravo and Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. 6-day tours) and Monarch Butterfly Photography Adventure (“Capture photos of one of the world’s most remarkable natural phenomena. Itinerary highlights Angangueo, Valle de Bravo and Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. 7-day tours”). Other tour operators that do or did offer monarch tours include Interlude Tours, Mexperiennce, Mich Mex Guides and Top Travel, Monarch migration season is about over for this year, but try to catch the film in Denver of elsewhere and think about it for next year. S&S Tours already as an escorted, small-group trip scheduled for 2014.

I’m ready!

Springhill Suites’ Package for Denver Restaurant Week

Spend the night and turn Resturant Week into a culinary getaway

P1010122SpringHill Suites Denver Downtown at Metro State, a unique lodging property that opened last summer both as state-of-the-art lodging property and as a learning lab for students at the school’s Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, is embracing its first Denver Restaurant Week (February 23 to March 8) with a special-event package featuring Denver-made wine, hand-crafted caramels, free parking, and complimentary breakfast. Since DRW dinners are such a bargain ($52.80 per couple or $26.40 for one person), those coming into town can splurge a bit on lodging that neverthless offers an excellent value. The hotel is just a short walk from the vibrant Larimer Square and LoDo restaurant scene is the perfect location to enjoy Denver’s two-week culinary celebration, where diners can enjoy a fine meal at hundreds of restaurants, including nearby Coohill’s, Bistro Vendome, Hapa Sushi LoDo, TAG, Ocean Prime and Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar.


The SpringHill Suites’ Denver Restaurant Week package includes:

  • Accommodations for two in a spacious guest room
  • Two cans of wine from Denver’s Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery (yes, cans — and they’re good)
  • A box of hand-crafted salt caramels from Helliemae’s
  • Complimentary hot breakfast buffet
  • Complimentary parking

To reserve Denver Restaurant Week Package (starting $209 per night and based on availability, click here or call 303-705-7300.

Petra Threatened? Hard to Tell in a Few Hours

The splendid site in Jordan looks rock solid, but UNESCO and others are worried about its stability

Petra, an ancient Nabatean site in southern Jordan, had been on my bucket list even before Indiana Jones visited on horseback. Sculpted sandstone, slot canyons and spectacular structures carved into the pink-hued rock. The most spectacular façade is The Treasury, made famous in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” an unreal story filmed in a very real place. One of my motivations for signing up for the recent Society of American Travel Writers Freelance Council meeting in Israel largely so that I could also visit Petra, once the crossroads of the Nabatean kingdom and now a splendid, captivating archaeological site in southern Jordan.

I spent a few precious hours in Petra, like many tourists, on a day trip from Eilat or from a cruise ship calling on Aqaba on the Jordanian side of the border. For visitors like me coming from Eilat, there are border formalities, both Israeli and Jordanian, so that officials can do whatever with passports and collect exit fees ($55 when leaving Israel, $8 when leaving Jordan on the return). Then there’s the bus ride over the mountains, which had a dusting of snow in January, an obligatory stop at a barely heated gift shop and finally, to the entrance to the site on the outskirts of the town of Wadi Moussa. Petra was an important as crossroads for camel caravans that traveled the trade routes linking it with China, India, southern Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The Nabateans established it sometime around the 6th century B.C., with golden age of construction between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D.  Problems came first when the Roman Empire swallowed all and then when the Crusaders had their turn at invading this land.

Petra had long been considered a “lost city” from antiquity. It was discovered — or rediscovered — in 1812, just 200 years ago. It has since become a UNESCO World Heritage site, is listed on the “new list” of seven wonders of the ancient world (the new list being of wonders that still exist) and is Jordans #1 tourist attraction. As Petra Archaeological Park, it is now managed by an autonomous authority. Continue reading Petra Threatened? Hard to Tell in a Few Hours

Cinco de Mayo Celebrated More in the US Than in Mexico

Event celebrates a battle, not Mexico’s independence

As my friend Jimm Budd, a gringo residing in Mexico City and publisher of Mexicogram, reminds us year after year:

“Saturday is May 5, Cinco de Mayo, when, it seems, everyone abroad remembers Mexico. Best way to remember Mexico is by sipping a margarita, and there are as many versions of margaritas as there are of daisies. On story has it that the first margarita was concocted for Margarita Casino, a dancer from Brooklyn performing in Tijuana. That dancer later came to be known as Rita Heyworth. Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada disputes this as do others. As for Cinco de Mayo, it commemorates the only victory Mexico ever won over a foreign army. That was in 1862, the foreign army was French and the French stayed in Mexico until the end of the American Civil War, after which Washington told Napoleon III to take his army home.”

In fact, Mexican Independence (celebrated on September 16) had other heroes. One was Juan José de los Reyes Martínez Amaro (nicknamed El Pipila) an uneducated but inventive miner in Guanajuato used to wear a flat rock slab to protect himself from falling debris in the mine. Another hero was a fiery priest named Miguel Hidalgo from the nearby town of Dolores Hidalgo. On September 16, 1810, he issued the ‘Grito de Indepencia,’ a call for equality, or at least fairness, by the colonial authority to the impoverished mestizosand indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Monumental statue of "El Pipila" and his torch overlooking Guanajuato.

On September 28, Father Hidalgo led a ragtag army of highly disgruntled Mexicans and indigenous Indians armed with machetes and clubs to attack the Spanish. Forewarned, the colonial governor, the soldiers he commanded and well-off Spanish civilians living in Guanajuato barricaded themselves and their valuables inside the Alhondiga de Granaditas, a public granary thought to be as sturdy as an unbreachable fortress. And so it seemed, as Spanish musketeers firing from the top of the grain tower were able to repel the “insurgents.” Continue reading Cinco de Mayo Celebrated More in the US Than in Mexico

Santiago de Compostela: The Next Big Trip

Martin Sheen on screen is paving the way for American tourists to find themselves & their spirituality

When Eat, Pray, Love became a bestseller and then a movie, American women (in particular) headed for Italy, India and Indonesia to find themselves and their soulmates. What author Elizabeth Gilbert and movie star Julia Roberts did for those three I-countries (was that intentional?, I wonder), “The Way” will doubtless do for the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. It stars Martin Sheen and is less of a chick flick than EPL, so men as well as women will most likely be motivated to follow the fabled pilgrimage route, known in English as the Way of St. James.

The Plot:  Sheen is an American doctor named Tom who goes to France to retrieve the ashes of his grown son who died during a storm while walking the ancient pilgrimage route (a Roman route before that) to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. In his grief and to honor his son’s personal mission, he decides to walk the same ancient spiritual trail where his son perished. Carrying his son’s pack, he embarks on a journey that ultimately includes encounters with others from around the world, some of whom are also lost or grieving, and seeking for greater meaning or spirituality in their lives. Call it Canterbury Tales for the 21st century.

The Prediction: American travelers (in particular) will start looking at northern Spain as they never did before. On foot, by mountain bike, on horseback, in organized tours complete with sag wagons and as lone walkers, they will follow the path that Christian pilgrims have followed for more than a millennium. It has been designated a European Cultural Route and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at roughly 750 kilometers for the whole route, surely the longest, skinniest such “site.”

Actor Martin Sheen in a scene from "The Way."

The Pilgrimage Routes: There is not just one El Camino de Santiago (the well-known Spanish name, or  O Camiño de Santiago in Galacian, Chemin de St-Jacques in French,  Jakobsweg in German, O Caminho de Santiago in Portuguese and Done Jakue bidea in Basque, which is useful to know since the long route crosses the Pyrenees, Sheen’s fictional son perished). The four main tourist/pilgrim routes start in various places and measure out to various distances, All are are well mapped, marked with a scallop symbol, documented in media from books to blogs, and on film and video. Churches, inns and other simple places of refuge where pilgrims can spend the night, have a meal and wash are the traditional accommodations, but greater comfort is available in hotels along the way too, and tour groups often are booked into these.

The splendid Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where St. James is believed to be bured and the goal of an ancient pilgrimage route.

The Passport. Much like the National Park Service’s popular passport that can be stamped at all NPS units, there is a Compostela passport called the credencial (or something like that). Collect stamps along the way to earn the compostela, which is a certificate of accomplishment given to those who arrive at the cathedral after walking a minimum of 100 kilometers (roughly 60 miles) or bicycling at least 200  kilometers. To earn it, many walkers make their way to Sarria by bus or train, and head out from there. A daily Pilgrim’s Mass at noon includes the “Hymn to Santiago” synchronized with the swinging of the Botafumeiro, an enormous metal incensory above the pilgrims’ heads.

The Tour Packages: Something like 150,000 pilgrims have completed the route in recent years, but I’m betting interest soars. As the film gains traction, tour operators will most likely be adding “The Way” packages and new ones will jump into the market while it’s hot. Here are a few that can be booked now:

  • Sentiers de France’s self-guided 12-day program from Puy en Velay. Basic walking tour with lodging in 1- and 2-star hotels; “comfort” tour with lodging in 2- and 3-star “charming” hotels with some meals.
  • Marly Tours walking and bicycling itineraries include lodging, support vehicle, luggage transfer, itinerary, security and some meals, but pilgrims travel independently.
  • Fresco Tours has a dozen scheduled 10-day, 9-night walking tours for small groups between April and October 2012; included are ground transportation, lodging, meals, support vehicle and guide.


Hawaii’s Changing Landscape on View

Visitors watch land alteration daily at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

I first visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park not long after Kilauea began erupting. That event began in 1983, and one subdivision had already been engulfed in lava. Street signs sticking out of the rock made for good images. It made news then, and still does. Videographers still show up whenever lava from the world’s most active volcano again begins to cascade into the Pacific Ocean. The dramatic footage of red-hot molten lava oozing into the sea and sending up giant steam clouds makes for good television, but seeing the current lava-less activity is also watching a compelling natural force in action.

A current aerial view into the crater and the lava lake. (USGS photo)
A current aerial view into the crater and the lava lake. (USGS photo)

I’ve returned to the park several times since then, and it changes more frequently than any other major national park. Kilauea’s eruptions from the east rift zone have been constant 24/7 for some 18 years, adding over 568 acres to the southern shore of the Big Island of Hawaii and by now covering 8.7 miles of highway with lava as deep as 115 feet — way over the tops of the signs by now.

Steam plume emits 600 tons of material into the atmosphere every day.

Kilauea never sleeps — sometimes pouring out lava, sometimes not. There is no current lava flow but rather a powerful steam plume rising up from a lava lake. From a distance, it looks like an enormous geyser by day and a glowing cloud by night.  The US Geological Survey posts a daily update on the status of thermal and volcanic activity in the park.

In addition to adding new land and changing the park’s acreage, the Park Service has to change where people may visit and from where they can look out over current volcanic action. Roads have been obliterated and one road was removed and replaced by a trail and boardwalk past steaming pits and cracks. Currently, Crater Rim Drive is closed between Jaggar Museum and the Chain of Craters Road junction due to volcanic activity.

The park is more than volcanoes and lava, of course. It contains a tropical rainforest, has one of the highest rates of endemic species anywhere in the world (endemic meaning it is found there and nowhere else) and when measured from the sea floor to the top of Maune Kea, it is the highest base-to-summit mountain on the planet. For these reasons, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I was lucky enough to join Rob Pacheco, founder and president of Hawaii Forest & Trail, on a twilight tour in the park. He shared so much knowledge, my notebook is so full and my time is so constricted right now (I have to be heading out for dinner in 45 minutes and have yet to shower) that I can’t come up with a coherent post right now. But I’ll try when I have a bit more time to decipher my hasty notes and write a (hopefully) coherent post.

Will High-Tech Border Fence Become a Tourist Attraction?

Other walls that kept people apart eventually draw tourists together

Walls are sometimes meant to keep people in (prisons, for example) and sometimes to keep them out (fortresses). The Great Wall of China to keep the Mongols out, Hadrian’s Wall to protect the Roman presence in Britain against raiders from the north, the Berlin Wall to keep the East Germans in and Israel’s walls to contain Palestinians are just a few examples over the centuries. 

I’ve walked along the Great Wall of China in both directions from Bandoling, an attraction for foreign tourists and visitors alike, because it is the most convenient segment to Beijing and the most developed as well.

The Great Wall of China, built in the 3rd century, B.C.

I’ve hiked along a section of Hadrian’s Wall west of Carlisle. Once a formidable barrier, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and north England’ s most popular tourist attraction.

Hadrian's Wall, begun in 120 A.D. and more than 70 miles long.

Nothing symbolized the Cold War more than the Berlin Wall, which divided the city that once was (and is now again) the capital of Germany.  Segments of the Wall have been relocated all over the world to memorialize the terrible tensions of the Cold War era and all the repression involved. The first time I went to Europe, I passed through Checkpoint Charlie separating the two halves of divided Berlin. Germany and Berlin have been reunified, and I’ve seen segements of the wall in Manhattan, Rapid City and elsewhere. I haven’t seen the one at Israel’s Ein Hod Artists’ Village, an sad and ironic place for it, since Israel is still building its dispiriting security wall.

Built in 1961 to divide East and West Berlin

Israel started building a formidable wall after the Second Intifada in 2003, and they haven’t stopped yet. An eight-foot wall cuts through some Palestinian towns and surrounds others, separates farmers from their field and their livestock, and makes Palestinians prisoners on their land. I passed through it in June going to and from the airport in Tel Aviv. It is not a tourist attraction but rather an impediment to Palestinian people and a provocation to them. Hopefully, a two-state solution will be hammered out of this bitter conflict and the wall (or small sections of it) will eventually become a curiosity and tourist attraction too.

The wall was begun in 2003 and is still under construction. When completed (or if completed) it will be 760 kilometers long (430 or so miles -- but correct my arithmetic if I'm wrong).

Another barrier, this one high-tech rather than brick and mortar, is/was a planned “virtual” border fence between the US and Mexico. This Bush administration brainchild, conceived in 2005 and was sold to Congress and the tax-paying public as chain of cameras, ground sensor and radar installations that were to detect “illegals” crossing the 2,000-mile border between the US and Mexico. Boeing has raked in a billion dollars, only about 53 miles of fence were ever constructed. Janet Napolitano is the  former governor of Arizona (you know, the state where Congresswomen, federal judges and 9-year-olds occasionally get shot), knows something about border problems and immigration issues. She is now the Secretary of Homeland Security and announced a few days ago that the project is dead. What took the Obama Administration so long to dump it? It cost $15 million a mile — money that could have gone elsehwere. Looking at previous attempts at fence-building, I wonder whether the bit of “virtual” fence will ever be a sightseeing attraction. You be the judge.

Installations like this were supposed to secure the 2,000-mile-long US-Mexico border. Only 53 miles have been built, and that's it. Have taxpayers gotten their billion bucks' worth?

 With the dream of a high-tech barrier stretching from one end of America’s southern border to the other – originally hailed by then-President George W. Bush as “the most technically advanced border security initiative” ever – officially canceled, I wonder what the next frontier will be to keep people out or in or have something to look at when it’s finished.

Skip to next paragraph

In announcing that it would pull the plug on the troubled “virtual fence” project, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Friday it would instead pursue a region-by-region approach, with different parts of the US border protected in different ways as dictated by terrain and other area-specific conditions.

“This new strategy is tailored to the unique needs of each border region, providing faster deployment of technology, better coverage, and a more effective balance between cost and capability,” said DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement.

Stuttgart Train Station, Doomed?

Protests aimed at saving the early 20th century landmark

The main railroad station in Stuttgart resembles an armory — massive stones, small windows, a landmark 12-story tower, an illuminated Mercedes-Benz logo and a commanding presence in the center of the city.  I wouldn’t call it a beautiful building, but it is imposing. Recently, Stuttgart, a key industrial city that was heavily damaged during World War II, once had to choose between  recreating or replacing the old as it rebuilt. Now, it is grappling with another major downtown decision.

Up to this point, the neo-Romanesque station is a terminal station, meaning that the tracks dead-end there so that trains can discharge and take on passengers and then pull out again in the direction they came from. The railroad or the government or both want to make it a through station and reorient that tracks from east-west to north south.  The €4.1 billion project, called Stuttgart 21 to reflect the present century, includes undergrounding rail operations, which in turn would require demolishing the entire station. It was designed by renowned Stuttgart architect Paul Bonatz, who lived, worked and taught through the turbulent 1930s and 4os, but never joined the Nazi Party so was considered political unreliable. He died in 1956, and there is a possibility that this masterwork, which was completed in 1928, will die  of zealous modernization.

Along with demolishing the station, the plan would call for the destruction of hundreds of grand old trees in the park across the street. It could be argued that trees can be replanted, even if they take a long time to mature, but there is no question that the demolition of a landmark is forever. Germany reproduced many of its destroyed and damaged landmarks once and is probably disinclined to do so again.

Preservationists and nostalgic locals began protesting — up to 100,000, according to some reports, met with tear gas and pepper spray. Conservatives surprisingly joined the protest to object to the disruption that this massive project would cost to rail travel and to the city.  UNESCO got into the fray last year by nomnating the building for inclusion in the World Cultural Heritage list. The government will take up the issue. The best scenario would be a compromise that would incorporate the landmark building with modern rail transportation needs.

Stay tuned.

Palestine Day 7: Ramallah and Ein Areek

Two more faces of Palestine: the capital and a small town with no major landmarks from antiquity

Much of the West Bank and Ramallah in particular remind me of every developing country I have ever visited: Roads in various states of disrepair. Incomplete buildings that are either under construction or abandoned and crumbling. Graffiti. Weed- and litter-choked empty lots. Wrecked cars. Busy markets with small shops open to the street that exemplify the most basic form of capitalism. No big-box stores here. Call it small-box retail.

Roadside repair businesses. Street vendors. Tailors and cobblers working out of impossibly small shops. Storefront doctors and dentists. In short, providers of goods and services that keep a community functioning, along with schools, houses of worship. There are also sparkling office buildings, banks, government buildings, good hotels, high-rise apartment buildings and prosperous residential neighborhoods, symbols of hope for better times to come.


Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Territories north of Jerusalem, was often in the headlines during the two Intifadas. Originally an agricultural community and primarily a Christian town, its residents were early adopters of resistance, many joining frequent protests, strikes and demonstrations. It is currently the capital of the occupied Palestinian territories and, if and when Palestine gains independence, it will be the capital of the country.

We started with a lavish poolside buffet breakfast at the Grand Park Resort and Hotel, a pristine property catering largely to business travelers and those with business at consulates in the Palestinian capital. The hotel was built in 1997 as a two-story building and renovated and expanded with three additional floors last year. A large screen was put up in the pool area for World Cup games.

Also, a new Mövenpick Hotel is under construction. The project began in 1999, remained in limbo between 2003 and 2005, was restarted with an anticipated completion date of 2007 and finally seems on track to open fairly soon. The renovation and expansion of one fine European-style property and the projected open of another are positive signs that things are getting better in Ramallah, even if progress is sometimes slow.

Arafat: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

To Westerners, the name Yasser Arafat is m most often associated with his early years of Palestine Liberation Organization violence. To Palestinians, he not is unlike George Washington to Americans or, in fact, David Ben-Gurion to Israelis — in short, a leader in the battles for their respective independence movements and the first head of government once it was achieved (or in Palestine’s case, partially achieved).

Arafat, who gained world recognition as a terrorist, later was co-laureate with Israel’s Itzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Peres is still alive and active in government, but Rabin was assassinated by an ultra-Orthodox Jew for his peace-making efforts. A decade later, Israel re-declared Arafat to be terrorist and kept him under house arrest for some two years, releasing him only to die in Paris. Some Palestinians believe that the Israelis had a hand in his demise. His simple mausoleum of Palestine stone and glass remains a pilgrimage place for Palestinians, many of whom are willing to overlook the corruption that the political movement he had started eventually deteriorated into.

Architectural Heritage
The Riwaq Center (Center for Architectural Conservation) is an NGO that seeks to inventory, document, protect, rehabilitate and reuse Palestine’s architectural heritage buildings, with the additional benefit of job creation and community involvement. With 50,320 historic buildings in 422 towns and villages, it has undertaken what has already been a Herculean task but one that has already earned it a prestigious UNESCO World Habitat prize in 2006. According to Riwaq’s Farahat Mihawee, the immediate priority is to protect 50 of those 422 identified centers and 50 percent of the the historic (i.e., pre-concrete) buildings within them. Sixteen protection plans for cultural heritage protection have been drawn up. Funding is currently available for three out of those 50 priority sites. For visitors interested in antiquities and community, Riwaq’s concept of a mapped Cultural Tourism Trail linking traditional villages is in the works with help from a Swedish International Development Agency.

Ein Areek

We drove to the village or Ein Areek (aka, Ain Arik), where we were welcomed by Father Giovanni Santee of the monastic community of St. Benedict. He has been in the Holy Land (here and in Jordan) for 30 years and is one of three brothers and five sisters who maintain this Catholic church as a “place of prayer and peace.” Although they are all originally from Italy, as part of their seven hours of daily devotion, they read the Old and New Testaments  pray, say the Rosary and celebrate Mass in Arabic. He says that they maintain good relations with the increasingly large Muslim community and also with the local Imam and Orthodox priest. The clerics communicate on social issues, especially education, that affect the community but stay away from each others’ theologies. He says there are “no fundamentalists” in the village and that neighbors have “lived together for centuries.”

Back to Jerusalem

Even after short time in the gentle tranquility of Ein Areek, it was a shock to return to Jerusalem passing yet another choked checkpoint, aggressive graffiti on the wall, children who should be in school hawking CDs and occasionally throwing rocks, and a tattered United Nations flag flying over a World Food Program warehouse.

This was the last full day of touring the West Bank.

Great Barrier Reef Ship Grounding, Update

Efforts underway to contain reef damage

Travel Babel seems to have been the first travel blog to report on the Chinese-flagged coal carrier “Shen Neng 1” that went 9 miles off-course and plowed into the coral reefs of Keppler Island, part of the Great Barrier Reef. The resultant oil spill continues to threaten marine life in a maritime protection area that also happens to be one of the world’s great scuba diving destinations. Since then, the disaster has caught some world attention, with television news and wire service reports updating the situation and the Australian government response. The photo at right was released by Australian Maritime Safety Authority, and you can see a SkyNews report on YouTube.

The threat to the reef remains worrisome. According to an Associated Press report released on Tuesday evening, local time, “A stranded Chinese coal ship leaking oil onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an environmental time bomb with the potential to devastate large protected areas of the reef, activists said on Monday.” Reuters quoted Llewellyn, director of conservation for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Australia, who called the “was a “ticking environmental time bomb.”
The reef, a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the ship carried some 300,000 gallons of heavy fuel to run its engines. Shipping companies like this (relatively) cheap, low-grade fuel, which is very viscous, and and must be heated before injected into engines. When it ends up in the ocean, this gooey, sludge-like oil coats birds, wildlife, corals, rocks and sandy beaches and is extremely difficult to clean up.

An Environmental Crisis Waiting to Happen — and It Did

“We’ve always said the vessel is up in an area it shouldn’t be in the first place,” Marine Safety Queensland general manager Patrick Quirk  told the media. “How it got to that to that position will be the subject of a detailed investigation by the Australian Transport Safety Board.” He added ships sometimes used a shortcut through the reef, a practice that will be reviewed by the federal government.  Six thousand ships a year travel the marine lanes between the east coast of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Numerous conservation groups have for years been concerned that bulk carriers are permitted to travel through the reef without a specialized marine pilot. The government has thus far said pilots are not necessary when ships pass protected areas because they are banned there — until they stray off-course, nine miles off-course, in the case of the “Shen Neng 1.” The government might now change its tune.

At last report, two powerful tugs were on the scene, attempting to stabilize the ship while salvage crews assessed the situation. A boom is in place around the stranded ship to contain the oil spill. Australian  officials say the “Shen Neng I” is owned by belongs to the Shenzhen Energy Group, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (acronym, COSCO) — the country’s largest shipping company. COSCO could be fined up to 1 million Australian dollars (US$920,000) — a pittance in view of the damage.

COSCO’s History of Oil Spills

This Australian incident is COSCO’s third major foul-up in less than three years. In November 2007, the “Cosco Busan” hit one of San Francisco Bay Bridge supports and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, contaminating beaches, killing wildlife and floating into the Pacific Ocean. Skipper John Cota received a 10-month jail sentence for negligence. I don’t know whether COSCO was also fined, but cleanup reported cost $100 million.

On July 31, 2009,, “Full City,” a Panamanian-flagged ship owned by COSCO, suffered engine failure, ran aground during a storm and spilled some 200 tons of oil that eventually spread 100 miles in an area of wildlife sanctuaries and popular beaches. Pollution effects could linger for a decade. According to a British report on the fiasco, “In the days following the disaster, one of Norway’s worst, thousands of birds said to be part of the Lille Sastein bird sanctuary and which were covered in oil, were considered beyond saving and had to be shot. Hundreds more are being cleaned up by volunteers along the coastline.” The captain, whose name and ultimate fate I don’t know, was arrested for a failure to alert authorities that his ship was in trouble, but he was released without bail.

COSCO has been notably silent about this latest disaster, but on April 1, it issued the following press release, which seems to indicate that money and ROI and not responsbility are all that matter to this state-owned compay:

“COSCO Sustainable Development Report 2008, among the 44 sustainable reports, was praised as ‘Notable’ report, which was conveyed in the letter to Capt. Wei Jiafu, President and CEO of COSCO Group from Mr. Georg Kell, Executive Director of UN Global Compact Office on March 3rd, 2010. COSCO Group is the only selected Chinese company this year and only Asian company whose sustainability report is deemed ‘Notable’ for four years in a roll [stet]. The report analysis was conducted by a coalition of global investors from 13 countries managing over US$ 2.1 trillion of assets, and they are all signatories to the UN-backed Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative to help companies that under United Nations Global Compact better corporate reporting on environmental, social and corporate governance activities.”