Sunk British WWII Tanker Still Leaking Oil in Seyðisfjörður Skip to content

Sunk British WWII Tanker Still Leaking Oil in Seyðisfjörður

By Jóhann Páll Ástvaldsson

The British tanker El Grillo is still leaking oil into Seyðisfjörður 75 years after it was sunk by a German air raid. The oil is killing off birds in the fjord while old oil can still be seen on beaches in the area. Municipal authorities intend to request the United Kingdom for assistance with cleaning up the wreck and preventing further pollution.

SS El Grillo was sunk after a German air raid on February 10, 1944. Although there were no casualties, the ship was heavily damaged and the captain decided to sink it to remove the ship as a target and a risk. The air raid, which set out from Norway, was comprised of three Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condors. The wreck lies at a depth between 22 to 45 metres, lying almost upright. The site is one of the more popular diving sites in the country.

Polluting the fjord
A significant amount of bunker oil seeped out into the fjord after the attack, and the subsequent voluntary sinking. Oil dirt can be seen under stones when they are turned, and a foul smell rises. The wreck constantly leaked oil, so cleaning operations have been carried out twice. The last one took place in 2001 when a Norwegian contractor was hired to clean out the estimated 2,000 tons of oil in the wreck. Ultimately, only 90 tons of oil were found and cleaned from the wreck.

The wreck is still leaking oil into the Seyðisfjörður fjord and is affecting local birdlife. Eider duck ducklings can ill handle the oil as it becomes stuck in their feathers and immobilize them. This development can be difficult to spot as seagulls quickly seize the easy prey. Visible oil slicks can be seen in the fjord itself.

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A duckling in the tidemark struggling to deal with oil

Rúnar Gunnarsson, head port security officer and chairman of the security council, says the conditions have been especially bad this summer in an interview with RÚV. “As the sea warms, more oil surfaces as the oil needs only a small change in temperature to start to move. The ship is presumably getting more and more damaged, as it’s laid there for 75 years. The current brings the oil into the fjord, which enters the beaches and affects the birds. It’s very serious. Adolescent birds and the eider duck ducklings can’t seem to handle the oil. The adult birds seem, for some reason, to handle the oil better, but the adolescent birds have died in drove this year,” a worried Rúnar said. He wants to see a floating pen placed over the wreck before the oil starts to rise again next summer. No-one knows for sure how much oil can be found in the wreckage. “I’ve heard people speak of 14 tons which is quite a lot in the grand scale of things. We are going to contact the British embassy and see whether the British want to take any part in the cleaning. When it boils down to it, it’s their ship. They owned the ship and the oil which went down with it.”

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El Grillo the day of the attack in Seyðisfjörður fjord

Wartime Iceland
Although Iceland remained neutral in World War II, the British invaded Iceland on May 10, 1940. The country was considered of strategic importance due to its position in the North Atlantic. It was mainly used as a base for Allied shipping convoys headed with supplies to Murmansk in northern Russia. On July 7, 1941, the United States took control of the defence of Iceland. It is believed that around 230 Icelanders lost their lives in the war, most on fishing and cargo vessels sunk by German aircraft, U-boats or mines.

Seyðisfjörður was home to one of the Allied bases in the country, as both warships and merchant vessels moored in the bay before heading to Russia. Seyðisfjörður was attacked once more in WWII, other than the attack which led to El Grillo’s sinking. On September 5, 1942, two German aeroplanes attacked Seyðisfjörður and dropped two bombs into the fjord. One of the bombs fell only seven metres from four boys who were playing in an old rowboat. Luckily, none of the boys lost their lives but one of the boys lost his leg while two others sustained injuries. Aðalbergur Þórarinsson was one of the boys and he was struck in the groin by a bomb shard. Although Aðalbergur long dealt with a fear of aeroplanes, he remains stoic about the event, “I bear no ill-will towards the man who flew the aeroplane. These were men who were summoned to war and were simply fighting.” Just last year, a group of twelve-year-old boys were throwing an active bomb between them, putting themselves at considerable risk. The bomb is believed to be from El Grillo’s anti-aircraft gun.

Seyðisfjörður is situated in East Iceland, home to 673 people. Nowadays it is home to an active art community, hosting the yearly art festival LungA. The ferry MS Norröna travels sails from Denmark to Seyðisfjörður, stopping in the Faroe Islands capital Tórshavn en route.

Video of the wreck, oil slicks in the fjord along with affected ducklings, can be seen here:

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