Arthur Phillip, 21 May 1990

On 21 May 1990 an extensive oil slick was sighted approximately four nautical miles south-east of Cape Otway by the pilot of a light aircraft. The Australian-flagged tanker Arthur Phillip was later established as the source of the spill.

On 23 May first reports were received of oil coming ashore and of dead or oiled penguins. 

Overall 328 oiled birds of six species were recovered:

  • 318 Little Penguins (166 live, 152 dead)
  • Great Cormorant (3 dead)
  • Pied Cormorant (3 dead)
  • Fairy Prion (2 dead)
  • Pacific Gull (1 dead)
  • Common Diving Petrel (1 dead).

Fifty-eight Little Penguins (38.7 per cent) were released after rehabilitation.

This figure is considered a low success rate, as usually around 95 per cent of captured birds can be successfully rehabilitated. It was likely due to a number of factors, including the low body weight of birds washed ashore and the time interval since oiling. However, the total number of birds affected cannot be easily quantified, as birds washed ashore would represent only a small proportion of those that died. Most presumably die in the water and their bodies drift offshore, sink or are eaten. After the Exxon Valdez incident in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in March 1989, it was estimated that only 10-30 per cent of oiled birds washed ashore. If 318 Little Penguins represented only 10-30 per cent of the total, then the total number oiled may have been 1060 to 3180. (Jessop and Du Guesclin, 2000).

Investigations were initiated by Department of Transport (now AMSA) officers. However, samples obtained from suspect ships did not match the sample taken from the polluted area.

Several days later information was received that an oil spill occurred from an Australian-flagged tanker in the vicinity of Cape Otway at the time of the oil slick sighting report. As the spill took place in waters to which Commonwealth legislation applies, the investigation was passed to the Australian Federal Police.


As a result of this investigation, a number of summonses were issued in November 1990 under the Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1983. Both Caltex Tanker Co and the master of the Arthur Phillip were charged with illegally discharging oil and an oily mixture in contravention of the Act. In addition, the master was charged with failing to report the spill and failing to make appropriate entries in the vessel's oil record book.

In the Melbourne Magistrates' Court on 22 May 1991, both Caltex and the Master were committed for trial. The company and the master pleaded guilty and the owner was fined $60,000 and the master $4000. Clean up and investigation costs of $105,000 were paid by the shipowner.

The major part of the cleanup costs were incurred in monitoring the spill and the cleaning and care of wildlife.

Related information

  • Little penguins
  • Jessop, R. & Du Guesclin P. (2000). The effects of an oil spill at Apollo Bay, Victoria, on Little Penguins Eudyptula minor in May 1990. Australian Bird Watcher
Last updated: 9 November 2020