Spanish search and rescue service are in charge of keeping the ocean clean and safe. the ovean´s guardians. Juan Villanueva

The ocean´s guards

Juan Villanueva

6th October 2022

There are around 8 miles from Europe to Africa at its narrowest point; Gibraltar. Through the Mediterranean's gate, 155 huge ships sail every day, and accidents occur, even under the ocean´s guard´s watch. It's like you divert M1 traffic to a tiny alley. So the countries in charge of a given area -Spain, Marroco and the UK, in that case- shall watch out for the sea and keep those "roads" safe.
The Green Bee

Recently, the ship OS35 crashed into another methane tank when it left Gibraltar port, thankfully without casualties. It could have been much worse, though. While OS35 was shrinking on the prow, it was led by the ocean´s guard to a shallow area to do a controlled run aground. It had almost 490 tonnes of fuel, which could cause an environmental catastrophe. 

Although Gibraltar Authorities didn’t call immediately, Andalusian leader, Juanma Moreno, offered help to clean before it got out of hand. Nonetheless, a Cadiz MP announced he would request to make a national plan of contingency: «We shall avoid a new accident in the Gibraltar strait, which is one of the busiest marine roads worldwide, and it would become an environmental catastrophe.»

Who cleans this mess?

Spanish Search and Rescue Service is ready to act without notice; its estimated time of arrival is less than 20 mins. Its priority list after saving lives is to look after the environment, and they pick everything potentially toxic, even the fluorescent lights from the corridors. Those ocean´s guards they shall keep the roads for the ships to sail without threads such as broken vessels, dead animals or any oil spill, intentioned or not.  

Ibon Aguinaga, an officer at Spanish SAR, told me about the «cleaning team» routine when they are in action and how they use their tools. They have huge floating barriers, skimmers, a remotely operated vehicle -ROV, for friends- and giant balloons which drag up to 15 tonnes. Aguinaga explained to me the whole process: «Oil pools are not uniform. So the air units provide us with information of ubication, size and shat for us to draw an itinerary and push it with floating barriers to do a ‘U’. 

Spanish search and rescue service are in charge of keeping the ocean clean and safe. the ovean´s guardians. Juan Villanueva
S&R services use barriers to control the spilled oil

«When we gather enough oil, one ship goes forward with one of the floating barrier edges shifting the «U» into a «J» and getting the other boat closer to the stain. Then the skimmers begin.» Skimmers are of all sizes, but the biggest ones can plump up to 140 m3/h; nonetheless, Aguinaga explains that they need to stop regularly to reshape the pool and adjust the proportion of oil and water they extract. 

The ocean´s guards get great help from the technologies. An experienced eye can see the oil in the water, but cameras can detect even the density of the liquid and identify exactly where it is. It is helpful to catch them in situ; «Now we use drones. They fly beside the vessel where they have detected a temperature difference and with an extended arm and an emissions calculator, which tell us if they are discharging more contaminants than allowed.

Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and SDG-14

Generally, when people mention Search and Rescue services, they mean saving sailors and migrants close to drawn. Still, their duty as nature conservationist goes much further. They are committed to SDG-2030, and although it is not the only one, they are obligated with the number 14; preserve marine wildlife.

From the headquarters in Madrid, they recall one of their duties is to keep the sea alive. Pedro Echenique from SAR Service, proudly counted 740 actions last year. Further, he remembers that prevention is better than cure: «We don’t talk enough of the aerial watch, that avoid sailors do the so-called «centinazo«, this is cleaning stocks and deposits and throwing the wastage to the sea. Earlier in the days, this was a regular practice, but now it’s forbidden.» As a result, these incidents have been reduced by 90% thanks to aerial watch.

Search and rescue boat. Juan VIlanueva
Search and rescue boat


Therefore, awareness is crucial, and they organise the award SDG-14 (ODS in Spanish). We will know the winners at the end of October: «Our intention is rewarding initiatives that raise awareness among the general public. To show that a healthy environment is basic for our future«. For instance, Echenique mentions that sailors, from massive vessels to small boats, to be thoughtful of their waste: «¡It’s unbelievable still people use the sea as the boat bin!» 

The sea is a source of treasures and biodiversity. We are a blue planet, the only known able to develop life. However, we are in the midst of a climate crisis and biodiversity loss; oceans get warmer and acidified, whole corals die, and plastics create a bigger patch than the UK. Our vivid indigo will become a dead back if we keep doing business as usual.