Kirki, 21 July 1991

On 21 July 1991 Greek tanker Kirki lost its bow off the coast of Western Australia, resulting in a major pollution incident.

During the incident and the subsequent tow to a safe haven, the ship lost approximately 17,280 tonnes of light crude.

The combination of severe weather conditions and the effects of the Leeuwin Current helped avoid serious pollution of the West Australian coast as they dispersed 7900 tonnes of oil lost during the initial stages of the spill.

The response to the Kirki spill involved more than 100 experts.

To supplement existing stockpiles of both National Plan and oil industry equipment, significant quantities were moved at very short notice from Brisbane, Geelong and Port Adelaide to:

  • Perth
  • Fremantle
  • Jurien Bay
  • Dampier.

Vessel details

The 97,000 tonne Greek flag tanker Kirki entered the Australian search and rescue region on the evening of 11 July 1991.

The ship, operated by a Greek crew of 37, was on charter to BP Australia Ltd carrying a full cargo of 82,650 tonnes of Murban light crude from Jebel Dhanna, to BP's refinery at Kwinana, Western Australia.

The vessel also contained approximately:

  • 1800 tonnes of heavy fuel oil bunkers
  • 200 tonnes of gas oil
  • 100 tonnes of marine diesel
  • 35 tonnes of lubricating oil.
Oil slick from Greek tanker Kirki

Photo: AMSA

Built in Spain in 1969, the Kirki was owned by Kirki Shipping Corporation SA and managed by Mayamar Marine Enterprises of Liberia SA.

Toward the end of the voyage, the vessel encountered rough seas and a heavy swell with predominantly west to south westerly weather. Problems were first noticed at about 2200 Western Standard Time (WST) on Saturday 20 July when the forepeak ballast tank filled with sea water, causing the vessel to trim by the head. The vessel was about 55 nautical miles (nm) north west of Lancelin. The vessel reduced speed and its and course was altered to bring the weather on the beam and ease the effect at the bow. Efforts to pump out the tank were unsuccessful as serious structural damage had occurred to the ship's forward hull section. At the time the wind was a westerly 35 knots with a gale warning.

At 3.00 am WST on Sunday 21 July, the damaged bow section broke off causing the collision bulkhead to fracture and the expose no.1 cargo tank to the sea. Cargo oil spilled and fire broke out from the bow, probably as a result of arcing from exposed electrical cables. At this time the Kirki was 24 nautical miles south-west of the West Australian fishing village of Cervantes, 245 km north of Perth. The weather was severe; force 8 winds from the west/south west, rough seas and heavy swells.


At 3.02 am WST (5.02 am EST) Sunday 21 July, OTC Ltd's Perth Maritime Communication Station (Perth Radio) received a brief distress message from Kirki and relayed to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) in Canberra. Approximately 20 minutes later messages reported the distressed vessel in bad weather with a fire in the fore part of the ship and requesting helicopter assistance. The vessel was about 23 nautical miles south-west of Cervantes.

At 3.31 am WST (5.31 am EST) MRCC issued a Mayday Relay to Perth Radio requesting vessels in the vicinity to provide their positions. At the same time the MRCC sent a telex to the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA) Perth Rescue Coordination Centre requesting helicopter evacuation and to WA Police Operations advising them of the situation.

At 4.18 am WST CAA advised MRCC they had diverted an inbound Qantas 747 flight over the position of the distressed tanker and the aircraft captain reported sighting a large fire on board the tanker.

At 4.25 am WST a further report from the tanker indicated the fire was serious and the master requested that all crew be evacuated. CAA advised MRCC the proposed evacuation was being delayed by bad weather and fog, which was seriously hampering the helicopters. The weather included south-westerly winds at 30-35 knots with rough seas and poor visibility.

Having initiated life-saving operations and alerted Western Australian National Plan response personnel, the MRCC alerted AMSA's Operations Coordinator, Marine Pollution, to the incident at 4.40 am WST (6.40 am EST).

At 7.00 am WST the master of the tanker confirmed the fire was out but the vessel was listing heavily. At this time the first helicopter (Bristow Bell 212) arrived on scene and commenced winching crew from the tanker. The evacuation of the 37 crew was difficult because the helicopter could not land on deck and could only carry a limited number of people at a time. The P&O oil rig support vessel Lady Kathleen, on charter to Ampol, had responded to the MRCC Mayday and was proceeding to the area.

The fire at the forward part of the ship was finally extinguished by wave action.

The evacuation of the crew proceeded in extremely difficult conditions, with helicopter crews displaying considerable skill and courage in carrying out their task. All 37 crew members were finally evacuated from the distressed vessel by 12.00pm WST 21 July.

Oil spill response

The Kirki’s cargo was Light Arabian Crude (Murban).

A representative of the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) confirmed that Murban crude:

  • had a low pour point
  • had low wax content
  • had low viscosity
  • was amenable to the application of dispersants.

In lay terms the appearance of the oil was similar to black kerosine.

At 6.00 am WST the State Oil Pollution Committee held an emergency meeting and mobilised its resources to deal with the spill as it was likely to affect the WA coast.

Early estimates suggested up to 20,000 tonnes of crude had spilled. This estimate and the uncertainty about the fate of the abandoned ship required a major response. AMSA assumed prime responsibility for the response and activated Australia's National Plan to Combat Pollution of the Sea by Oil (National Plan), as the incident occurred on the high seas outside state jurisdiction. Under National Plan arrangements, state authorities remain responsible for oil impacting beaches.

During the morning, National Plan and industry oil pollution equipment was prepared and sent to Jurien Bay from:

  • Fremantle
  • Geraldton
  • Bunbury
  • Albany
  • Esperance
  • Dampier
  • Port Hedland.

The Dampier Port Authority arranged for pollution equipment to be brought by helicopter from a number of off-shore production facilities in the north-west, and transported south to Jurien Bay.

Representatives of the WA Environment Protection Authority (EPA), Department of Conservation and Lands Management (CALM), Fisheries and DMH met and agreed on a dispersant policy for the incident; no dispersant to be used in less than 30 metres of water or within five nautical miles of the coast.

AMSA marine pollution personnel arranged for National Plan equipment to be dispatched from South Australia, including 20 tonnes of dispersant and a helicopter spray bucket. Selected equipment at eastern state locations was placed on standby.

Canberra-based representatives of the Air Force and Navy were alerted to the possibility their assistance might be sought at short notice to relocate equipment and perform other tasks resulting from operational requirements.

BP chartered a Boeing 747 and a BAe 146 aircraft to transport 5000 metres of boom, 27 tonnes of dispersant, two dispersal spray buckets, four skimmers and absorbents to Perth from the Australian Marine Oil Spill Centre (AMOSC) in Geelong. BP also placed the TARC Oil Response Centre in Singapore and the industry centre at Southampton in the United Kingdom on standby to assist.

Esso Australia dispatched 80,000 litres of concentrate dispersant to Western Australia on 21 July, 15,000 litres on the BP charter aircraft and the remaining 65,000 litres by road transport.

An overflight at first light on Monday 22 July revealed an extensive slick spread very thinly over the water some 55 nautical miles in length, five nautical miles at its widest point, tapering to 100 metres near where the Kirki was under tow. The closest point of approach by oil to the foreshore was 4.5 nautical miles at a position just south of Jurien Bay. Because of the consistency of the oil and the fact that it was spread so thinly on the water surface it was not considered a threat. There were signs natural degradation of the oil had began.

To enhance the natural degradation process, six fishing vessels were employed to run through the oil and mousse towing breaker boards. This tactic was successful in breaking up large patches of mousse. Several patches of oil were successfully sprayed with a hydrocarbon dispersant.

A report was received from the salvors that in their opinion the Kirki would not sink and that the imminent danger of a major oil pollution incident was over. During the morning, the Lady Kathleen took advantage of moderating weather and re-rigged the tow in a more secure manner.

At about midday, dispersant was successfully sprayed on oil in deep water in the vicinity of the Kirki and along the westernmost extremity of the oil. Later in the afternoon, one dispersant spray run was conducted over the heaviest concentrations 10 nautical miles offshore. As the results were inconclusive, further spraying operations were suspended. A total of four flights spraying approximately 6500 litres of dispersant was applied to oil offshore from Jurien Bay.

Oil containment booms were positioned by helicopter on the islands adjacent to the coastline most likely to be affected. The intention was that these booms would be used if necessary to assist in the protection of wildlife and, if conditions allowed, diverting the emulsified oil around sensitive areas. Conservation and Land Management (CALM) personnel overflew the area to assess the wildlife population in preparation to implement contingency plans if necessary, and continued to monitor the situation throughout the response phase.

A specialist group of advisers was formed to advise the State Oil Pollution Committee on the practicalities of establishing a port of refuge off the North West coast/Dampier Archipelago to facilitate a ship-to-ship oil transfer operation. Several locations were identified by this group as being operationally suitable for a transfer operation, but State authorities found these locations unacceptable as they were located in or off environmentally sensitive areas. In view of this it was initially considered the Glomar Shoal area may offer protection from deep ocean swells to allow the ship-to-ship transfer to take place.

Fixed wing and helicopter surveillance overflights continued throughout the afternoon, and as the moderate weather continued the flow of oil reduced.

The oil escaping from the ship spread thinly very quickly, and at a distance of five nautical miles from the ship it was barely a sheen. The improving weather and bright sunshine appeared to be rapidly evaporating and breaking down the oil.

Local councils with foreshore responsibility in the area of the spill were alerted to have equipment and personnel on standby for beach cleaning operations in the event that the situation deteriorated.

A Bristow Puma helicopter arrived at Jurien Bay late afternoon to assist with the transfer of personnel and equipment between the shore and the Kirki.

During the morning of Tuesday 23 July, fixed wing and helicopter flights indicated that light traces of oil were appearing near some of the islands off Jurien Bay. A very small amount of oil tar balls impacted Whitlock Island. Clean up action, other than to attend to wildlife, was deferred until the full extent of the risk was known. It was not expected that oil remnants coming ashore would have any detrimental effect if allowed to remain on the beach. In addition, the area where it was envisaged this would occur was easily accessible for cleanup operations. Choppy seas generated by a strong wind the following afternoon and evening removed the impacted oil from the island.

At 10.30 am WST patches of emulsified oil were sighted four nautical miles off Green Head. Three fishing vessels were dispatched to break up these patches and two other fishing vessels dealt with similar patches 10 nautical miles off Jurien Bay.

Detailed assessment reports from the Kirki indicated that some structural damage had occurred amidships and that, from soundings of the remaining oil on board, the amount lost did not exceed 10,000 tonnes. Temporary repairs were made to stem the remaining leaking oil.

A fixed wing overflight of the Kirki prior to last light showed little leakage.

For most of Wednesday 24 July, the Kirki remained 45 nautical miles west of Jurien Bay while helicopter transfers took place and repairs to the damaged section of the forward area continued. This appeared to cause some concern among those who wanted the ship to move 100 nautical miles offshore to reduce the threat of environmental damage. However, operational requirements dictated that the vessel remain within helicopter range to facilitate transfer of equipment and personnel necessary to stabilise its condition.

BP estimated that at least 50 per cent of the oil released on the first day had evaporated by this stage. Of the remainder, a significant portion had either dissipated or dissolved. Calculations indicated the spill was in the region of 6000-10,000 tonnes.

This figure was later amended to 7900 tonnes comprising approximately:

  • 5300 tonnes from no.1 port
  • 2000 tonnes from no.1 centre and no.1 starboard.

It was estimated a further 600 tonnes leaked from the damaged forward tanks while the Kirki was off the Jurien Bay area. A further 11,000 tonnes escaped during the tow north.

Overflights during the morning indicated two small patches of very light mousse, each two metres square, had beached. Widespread sheen was still evident from the air. Based on observations there was little cause for concern.

The salvor onboard the Kirki advised that several of the forward tanks were again leaking oil. This occurred after the tow vessel was reported to have been forced to take evasive action to avoid an unidentified vessel passing across its path. A mid-morning fixed wing overflight confirmed the rate of leakage had increased. The increased rate of discharge was not considered a cause for immediate concern. Nonetheless, the Lady Kathleen commenced towing the Kirki further west, away from the coast.

By 2.00 pm WST hours the Kirki was 55 nautical miles west of Green Head, which is 15 nautical miles north of Jurien Bay. The rate of leakage was reduced within several hours, with the ship now being a sufficient distance from the coast to ensure shore pollution would not occur.

A helicopter overflight of the Jurien Bay area early morning Thursday 25 July confirmed virtually no slick left off the coast and little oil ashore. Some residue had washed onto the town beach at Jurien Bay in a thin band along the high water mark, which was subsequently ploughed into the beach to enhance natural degradation. A fixed wing overflight offshore sighted traces of sheen only. As a result of overflight observations a decision was made to terminate operations at Jurien Bay. Oil spill response equipment at Jurien Bay was stood down as was that equipment on standby interstate and overseas.

At a general debrief in Jurien Bay attended by representatives of authorities and organisations involved with the response, CALM officials advised no wildlife had been affected by the spill.

The majority of equipment transported to Jurien Bay, including virtually all equipment provided by industry, was not required.

One week after the spill occurred, the EPA, with the assistance of local fishermen, conducted water quality monitoring and was unable to detect any increase in the presence of hydrocarbons in the water column. The cost incurred in conducting the monitoring was met by the vessels' Protection and Indemnity (P&I) insurers.

Salvage operations

Oil slick from Greek tanker Kirki

On 21 July at 8.15 am WST (6.15 am WST) United Salvage were appointed salvors by the owners and a salvage contract, Lloyds Open Form 1990 (was formally signed by the Master of the Kirki on 23 July).

With all crew evacuated the Kirki was drifting derelict. This made the task of boarding by the salvage crews extremely difficult. The Lady Kathleen arrived at the scene at 10.40 am WST and attempted to take the Kirki in tow using the lines left by the crew. By 6.00 pm WST 21 July, Kirki was under tow some 13 nautical miles due west of Cervantes under the command of the salvage master and proceeding westerly at around two knots. Weather conditions in the area had abated and a favourable forecast was issued for the next 24 hours.

As the ship appeared to be in no danger of sinking it was agreed the vessel be towed some 100 nautical miles offshore and assessed with a view to a ship-to-ship transfer operation.

BP Australia placed two oil tankers on standby to accept the cargo. The Fremantle tug Wambiri arrived on scene at 6.30 pm WST to stand by and assist the Lady Kathleen as required.

The following day, Monday 22 July, salvage operations on board the Kirki continued, with the tow remaining within helicopter range for the transfer of personnel and equipment. A BP surveyor was transferred to the vessel to assess its condition.

A decision was made during the day to tow the Kirki north to a suitable location to facilitate a proposed ship-to-ship cargo transfer operation. Two engineers from the crew were taken back to the Kirki on Tuesday 23 July to assist the salvors with restoring onboard services and safety equipment.

The Lady Kathleen passed the tow over to the Lady Elizabeth during the afternoon of Wednesday 24 July and returned to station off Rottnest Island.

Two sets of ship-to-ship transfer pumps were flown by RAAF Hercules from Brisbane to Geraldton on Thursday 25 July for transfer over the coming weekend by tug to the Kirki to facilitate onboard pumping and ship-to-ship transfer operations.

Towing of the Kirki from Jurien to Dampier Archipelago

A decision was taken to tow the Kirki north to a suitable position some 50 nautical miles north of the outer limits of the Port of Dampier in north-west Australia for the cargo transfer. State interests requested that the tow maintain a distance of 100 nautical miles off the coast during the 11-day tow north in order to limit the likelihood of environmental damage should further spillage occur.

During the tow north, the Kirki encountered persistent heavy seas, with a swell ranging up to 10 metres. Course was altered frequently to minimise impact on the damaged area of the ship. The already damaged and leaking no.1 centre tank was damaged further and lost almost all its cargo. Wing tanks were also damaged. Approximately 10,000 tonnes of cargo was lost during this period.

During the tow, personnel restored services and made repairs to what a principal of United Salvage described as a ship in a 'very sick' condition. Those on board encountered considerable difficulties including repetitious and persistent equipment failure.

The large anchor handling supply tug Pacific Chieftain relieved the standby tug Wambiri on 30 July. With the Pacific Chieftain connected to assist the tow, speed was increased to 4.5 knots.

When the Kirki reached the vicinity of the Monte Bello Islands she was subject to a swell up to three metres. Advice was received from AMSA and United Salvage architects that it was vital that the ship be brought into sheltered waters out of swell conditions over three metres because of the stresses being imposed on her. It was agreed that the vessel be brought closer to the shore in order to find sheltered waters and to bring her to an even trim and, if possible, provide additional buoyancy.

The salvor was given a period of up to 12 hours to improve and stabilise the situation. If this could not be achieved AMSA would consider using its powers under the Protection of the Sea (Powers of Intervention) Act 1981 to direct the salvor to take the Kirki offshore for disposal. The salvor improved the situation by bringing the ship to an even keel, thereby allowing the salvage crew access to the foredeck and forward tanks.

Dampier Archipelago operations

The Kirki arrived off the Dampier Archipelago on Wednesday 7 August and preparations for the transfer operation commenced.

As a contingency arrangement, an Australian Maritime Resources (AMR) Air Tractor was repositioned to Karratha by BP for dispersant spraying operations in the event of a major loss of oil during transfer operations.

National Plan equipment was relocated from South Australia to the northwest and placed on standby.

Ship-to-ship transfer of oil

Image of tanker Flying Clipper alongside the Kirki

The 90,000 DWT tanker Flying Clipper was engaged by the salvors to receive the cargo remaining aboard the Kirki. The Flying Clipper arrived in the Dampier area on 9 August. The vessel stood off for four days while operations on board the Kirki to restore, trim and finalise other arrangements were made.

Two attempts were made to berth the two vessels stern to stern during the afternoon of 13 August. Both were unsuccessful due to weather conditions.

The vessels berthed shortly after midday 14 August, and pumping operations commenced at a rate of some 1250-1400 tonnes per hour during the early hours of 15 August. The berthing operation itself was carried out with a high degree of seamanship being displayed by the Master of the Flying Clipper in bringing his vessel alongside a casualty being towed stern first and under the influence of strong winds. The transfer took place while the vessels were drifting. The previously agreed plan to undertake the transfer whilst underway proved unworkable in the strong wind conditions and two-metre swells.

A state government request that the Kirki remain north of the baseline running approximately west to east from Trimouille Island to Rosemary Island meant that from time to time the Lady Elizabeth had to tow the casualty to the north in order to comply with this request. Drift direction during the duration of the transfer was generally north-north-west/south-south-east.

The transfer of cargo was completed late afternoon 18 August, while transfer of the remaining bunkers was completed early the following morning. A total of approximately 64,370 tonnes of Murban crude had been transferred plus approximately 1290 tonnes of heavy fuel oil bunkers. No oil escaped during the transfer operation. The Flying Clipper departed the area on 19 August bound for the BP refinery at Kwinana.

The owners of the Kirki awarded a contract to the salvors to tow the vessel to Singapore.

Cargo and fuel remaining onboard the Kirki following transfer operations was:

  • 400 tonnes of Murban crude as a 10 cm layer on water
  • ballast in no.3 and no.4 centres (due to rolling of the ship it was not possible to strip below this level with portable pumps)
  • 300 tonnes of heavy fuel oil (HFO)
  • 165 tonnes of gas oil
  • 108 tonnes of marine diesel
  • 33 tonnes of lubricating oil in various tanks.

It was necessary to leave a quantity of HFO and marine diesel on board from use in the boiler to provide inert gas to cargo tanks during passage to Singapore.

While many problems had occurred on the Kirki since its bow broke away on 21 July, yet another arose at the end of transfer operations on 19 August. At the time the Flying Clipper was departing from alongside the casualty, a boiler feed water pump on the Kirki failed. No alarms operated and the pressure in the boiler went past the 350PSI maximum to 700PSI when the safety (pressure relief) valve failed to operate. A serious problem, including risk of an explosion, was narrowly averted by several United Salvage engineers physically levering the safety valve open to relieve the buildup of pressure. This task was accomplished in the full knowledge that a dangerous situation existed and the threat of explosion was likely unless the valve was eased.


The Kirki was towed to Singapore where she was broken up for scrap.

Relevant information

Read more about the investigation into the loss of the bow section of the Kirki, the fire, evacuation of the crew and salvage operation in the

Last updated: 9 November 2020