Dead turtles and dolphins wash ashore in Sri Lanka after 'dangerous' ship container burns for 12 days before sinking

Sri Lankan navy soldiers work to collect plastic residue washed ashore from the fire damaged container ship MV X-Press Pearl at Kapungoda. Credit: AP

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Almost 100 carcasses of turtles with throat and shell damage, as well as a dozen dead dolphins and a blue whale, have washed ashore in Sri Lanka after a container ship burned and sank.

Ecologists believe the deaths were caused by the fire and release of hazardous chemicals while the Singapore-flagged X-Press Pearl burned for 12 days and sank last week off the main port in the capital Colombo.

However, government officials said these causes were "provisionally" confirmed and the investigation continues.

The fire started on the ship on May 20 and dead marine species started washing ashore days later.

A ship manifest said 81 of the ship’s nearly 1,500 containers held "dangerous" goods.

Sri Lankan wildlife workers remove the remains of a turtle on a beach polluted following the sinking of a container ship Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

The Sri Lankan navy believes the blaze was caused by its chemical cargo, most of which was destroyed in the fire.

But debris including burned fibreglass and tons of plastic pellets have severely polluted the surrounding waters and a long stretch of the island nation’s famed beaches.

Post-mortem analysis on the carcasses is being performed at five government-run laboratories and separately by the Government Analysts Department, said an official from the wildlife department.

"Provisionally, we can say that these deaths were caused by two methods – one is due to burns from the heat and secondly due to chemicals. These are obvious," said Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the environment ministry.

He refrained from giving an exact cause, saying post-mortem analysis is "still being conducted".

Thushan Kapurusinghe, of the Turtle Conservation Project, blamed the fire and chemicals the ship carried for killing the turtles.

A stray dog stands amid the waves as the remains of a turtle lie on a beach Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

With more than three decades’ experience on turtle conservation, Kapurusinghe said the dead turtles had oral, cloacal and throat bleeding and "specific parts of their carapace have burns and erosion signs".

The sea off Sri Lanka and its coastline is home to five species of turtles that regularly come to lay eggs and March to June is the peak season for turtle arrivals.

Lalith Ekanayake, a marine and coastal ecologist, suspects based on the nature of the fire and amount of chemicals, "at least 400 turtles may have died and their carcasses may have sunk in the sea or drifted to the deep sea".

Sri Lanka plans to claim compensation from X-Press Feeders, the ship’s owner, and has already submitted an interim claim of 40 million dollars (£28.8 million).