Sickly fumes penetrated air-conditioning pipes at the Opera House, Sydney's graceful landmark, forcing a performance of La Boheme to be halted in the final act. Eighty thousand litres of light crude oil leaked from an Italian tanker, the Laura D'Amato, on Tuesday evening as it was discharging its cargo at the Shell Australia refinery in Gore Cove, just west of the Harbour Bridge.
The tanker's owners, the Naples-based shipping company Fratelli D'Amato, accepted responsibility for the spill, which sent a 10km-long slick drifting through the harbour. The company blamed an open valve on the ship.
Shell and the Sydney Waterways Authority, which manages the harbour, launched investigations into the leak yesterday. The authority will look into allegations that it was an act of sabotage by disgruntled tanker workers.
"I think it is the largest oil spill we have had in 10 to 20 years," said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Waterways Authority.
Maritime authorities initially estimated it at around 10,000 litres but as emergency crews began the clean-up operation, it became clear that the spill was on a far larger scale.
Foul-looking sludge washed up on the dozens of beaches and small coves that dot the harbour, and residents choked as pungent fumes spread up to 12 miles across the city.
On Tuesday night, as Puccini's La Boheme approached its finale, the smell was "particularly bad in the orchestra pit", according to Helen O'Neil, spokeswoman for Opera Australia. A nearby cinema was also evacuated.
The clean-up is expected to take up to three days. Two Marco oil recovery vessels, each capable of picking up 25 tonnes of polluted water an hour, were flown in from Brisbane. Some of the oil evaporated, aided by favourable winds.
However, environmentalists warned of long-term effects on the harbour's eco-system. The Gore Cove area is a conservation area, and is also home to a collection of Aboriginal rock engravings. There were fears yesterday about the impact of the oil on wildlife, particularly sea birds such as pelicans and cormorants. National Parks and Wildlife Service officers launched an operation to rescue stricken birds.
Duncan Lidbetter, executive director of Oceanwatch, an environmental group, said that light crude oil presented a greater threat to wildlife than heavier oils, since it was more toxic.
Fratelli D'Amato apologised in a statement for the "most unfortunate accident" and said that the crew of the tanker - which was chartered by Shell Australia, a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch/Shell group - had sealed the valve within five minutes.
Bob Carr, state premier of New South Wales, called the spill "a desecration" of the harbour. "It shouldn't have happened," he said. "There'll be a full and comprehensive investigation."Reuse content