Greek engineers voiced hopes Tuesday they could avert a major environmental disaster after a sunken cruise ship leaked dozens of tons of oil off a resort island at the start of the tourist season.
Cleanup crews in Santorini worked to siphon up fuel from the Sea Diamond, which sank Friday after hitting a submerged reef, while a senior Greenpeace campaigner warned that speed is imperative in such operations.
A French passenger and his daughter are feared drowned. Nearly 1,600 people — mostly Americans — were safely evacuated after the accident Thursday.
Vassilis Mamaloukas, an environmental engineer leading the cleanup operation, said the spill was largely contained, but the threat remained present.
"We still have to be very careful. If the weather changes we will have to reconsider the whole operation," said Mamaloukas, who took part in the cleanup off Lebanon after Israeli airstrikes caused a massive oil spill last summer.
"I do not expect a major leakage from the vessel, so from that point of view I am still reasonably optimistic," he said, adding that 2.5-3 miles of shoreline had been affected — far from the island's famous black-sand beaches.
On Tuesday, an unmanned submarine examined the wreckage of the 469-foot ship.
Footage from the submarine will help officials who hope to position a hose pipe to pump fuel out of the Sea Diamond's tanks, thought to contain up to 400 tons of oil and lubricants. These threaten an ecological disaster at the start of the busy summer season on Santorini, whose spectacular volcanic cliffs rank among Greece's top tourist attractions.
Tourism is a major earner for Greece, providing an estimated 18 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
The pollution "is under control," Merchant Marine Minister Manolis Kefaloyiannis said, while ministry spokesman Andreas Theofilou said there was "no way" the slick could spread.
"There are three rings of floating booms in position, with a total length of 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile), and the cleanup boats are working all day," Theofilou said. So far, some 50 tons of diesel fuel have been siphoned out of the sea.
The ship has settled at an average depth of 400 feet said Giorgos Chronis, head of the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, which provided the robot submarine and an oceanographic ship.
"The fuel leakage is not great," he said, adding that it was still too dangerous for divers to enter the wreck.
But he added that the decision on pumping out the fuel "concerns the ship-owning company, which will decide with the insurers whether that would be in their interest."
The ship's owners, Cyprus-based Louis Cruise Lines, had no immediate comment.