Oil and Water
"In the week in which the world broke the temperature record four times, it felt surreal to go and snorkel on a wrecked tugboat, with a giant oil platform just in front of us..."
We’ve managed to venture outside of the marina this week and visited Tugboat Beach and Klein (“Little” Curação,) an uninhabited island that is three hours away by sailing boat. We were even more fortunate enough to sail there on a friend’s catamaran - our first time sailing on a catamaran.
When we arrived at Tugboat Beach we were greeted by a looming oil platform. Full of cranes and hoses and lights and platforms, it felt discombobulating to see it mar the vista of the white sand beach and turquoise sea.
Curação exports crude oil, mostly to the Netherlands. It also had its first oil refinery built during World War I by the Anglo-Dutch oil company Royal Dutch Shell in order to process the oil that was discovered in Venezuela.
Even after the nationalisation of Venezuelan oil, the refinery on Curação was still used by the Venezuelan state to refine some of their oil where their own refineries couldn’t process it all.
However, due to the ongoing economic problems in Venezuela, they were unable to renew the lease for the refinery in Curação in 2019. After that the refinery negotiated with a number of options, including Petrobras of Brazil and an American consortium, which wanted their oil refined there.
However, it seems that no agreement has been reached and there were forged documents presented by one of the proposed investing companies, including a letter - purportedly from a London bank which was going to underwrite the investment; but the bank itself said it did not issue this document. So there is still no deal.
However, that doesn’t appear to be stopping the extraction of oil from Curação itself. It provides jobs, for now. But the pollution released by the refinery is damaging to local people’s health and it stymies investment into other areas of the economy.
In 2019 a diving school tried to get the Curação government to hold the oil platform to account for destroying all of the coral reef at Boca Sami Bay. This was due to strong winds threatening the ship and so they turned on their engines full blast to maintain their position and not get blown into the rocks.
Under the agreement with the Curação government, they were supposed to head out to sea precisely to avoid this kind of damage, but as far as we know there were no consequences for this appalling environmental destruction.
In the week in which the world broke the temperature record four times, it felt surreal to go and snorkel on a wrecked tugboat, with a giant oil platform just in front of us.
Dystopian in fact. There were plenty of beautiful exotic fish and bright corals beneath the surface of the water, but as we continue to discharge the excretions of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, the heating of the oceans is rapidly putting paid to all life. With El Niño predicted to make next year even hotter, the contrast of the thriving life beneath the surface of the water and its destroyer just above could not have been starker.
A few days later we excitedly cast off from the marina on our friend’s giant catamaran, heading for Klein Curação. Three hours away from Curação, we arrived just before night fell and got a perfect anchoring spot in a sandy patch. There was only one other boat there.
The next morning we got up early to explore the island before the day trippers descended. We were as eager as little kids to explore the abandoned lighthouse and the rusting hulk of a shipwreck on the windward shore.
We swam ashore and luckily my hearing aids survived their trip inside a ziplock bag inside a tupperware container inside a drybag. Leaving the white sand beach for later, we headed straight for the lighthouse in the middle of the island.
Sandwiched between two pink but decidedly Dutch looking buildings with steeply pitched roofs, we clambered up the wooden spiral staircase. Luckily most of the steps were in good condition. The same could not be said of the windows. None of the windows had any glass left.
The automated light still works though, as we had seen it flashing its warning to ships the night before. Unfortunately the top of the staircase was missing so we were unable to get right to the top ladder to access the light itself. Still, we had a good view over the flat scrubby land and out to the sea.
Next stop was a walk to the far shore to see the remains of a Venezuelan oil tanker named the Maria Bianca Guidesman, which ran aground in the 1980s. It looks very dramatic with bent rusted protrusions outlined in stark relief against the azure sky.
Sadly there is also a shipwrecked French yacht that was stranded in 2007. Thankfully the crew made it to shore but the overturned boat lies as a constant reminder of the power of the wind and the sea.
As we walked up to the head of the island, we were thankful for our sunglasses protecting our eyes as shrieking black headed gulls wheeled over our heads, diving straight past our faces. We thought they must have nests in the rocks where we were walking.
We moved off the rocks and onto flat ground as we didn’t want to distress them. As we walked past a pond, they suddenly started shrieking again and we saw hundreds of their chicks running up and down being herded between adults, clearly unable to fly yet.
We walked round the coast and onto the white sandy beach. We ducked into the crystal clear water and swam out to the ridgeline where the water transitioned from light blue over the sand to dark blue over the reef and here we saw dozens of colourful fish.
What a beautiful place. We swam back to the boat and headed back to Curação that afternoon. The wind was behind us and the motion was gentle. As we approached the channel for Spanish Waters though, we saw yet another oil rig further out to sea that hadn’t been there when we left. Adjacent to it was a huge oil tanker and pilot boat.
Curação is still largely dependent on imported refined oil for its energy generation. About 30% is generated by renewables, but with its constant sunshine and consistent wind they certainly have the capacity to generate far more - obviously this will require investment, particularly in energy storage, which they are currently lacking.
We’ve already experienced two powercuts since arriving here. It’s so hot here that power surges have been caused by the increased use of air conditioning units. One of the cuts was due to a gas turbine malfunction and another due to a power line failure - both precipitated by the power surges. There are plans to expand the renewable and storage capacities in the near future, so hopefully this will also help to reduce the incidents of powercuts too.
And finally - the two puppies and their dad are still roaming free on the golf course :-)
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