Niger Delta fishermen are no strangers to seeing oil spill into their waters from leaky pipelines, but even they were shocked by the scale of the slick stretching for miles from a Shell facility across the swamps and into the ocean.
Some 3,800 barrels spilled recently, according to an investigation by Shell and government officials. It ranks as one of the worst in Nigeria for years, local environmental activists said.
A Shell spokesman said that some 1,200 barrels had been recovered as of Tuesday, and "recovery efforts are continuing" at the site on the Okolo Launch on Bonny Island.
Shell said the spill was caused by a failed crude theft. Nigeria, Africa's top oil producer, loses tens of thousands of barrels per day to oil theft that often causes spills, although many are also caused by corroded pipelines.
Shell shut down its 28-inch pipeline carrying Bonny Light crude Nov. 22, but the origin of the spill was from the smaller 24-inch pipe, which was shut last year.
Crude washed up in pools in front of beach shacks in the affected site, coating the roots of palm trees and leaving a trail of dead sea life. In some areas, people scooped up the crude to fill drums and jerry cans.
"We saw dead fish, dead crabs. ... This spill occurred seven, eight nautical miles from the shore ... [so] the volume runs into thousands of barrels," said Alagoa Morris, head of the Niger Delta Resource Center for Environmental Rights Action.
"We can't go fishing anymore. It has destroyed our fishing equipment,'' Bonny fisherman Boma Macaulay said, adding that it was the worst spill he had seen for at least five years.
Shell is under pressure to pay damages on other spills. Parliament said last month that it should pay nearly $4 billion for a spill at the offshore Bonga oilfield.
The Bodo community in Ogoniland is also suing for two massive spills in 2008 that devastated the area.
Shell said SPDC — a Shell-run joint venture majority-owned by the Nigerian government — deployed booms to contain the the latest spill.
A fisherman who has others working for him, Emmanuel Reuben, said his revenue had dropped sharply from an average of up to 50,000 naira ($280) a day to barely 5,000 naira a day because of the spill.
"That's not even enough to fuel the boat I use for fishing,'' he said.