MOSCOW – The sight would be compared to a graveyard: Along a bay shore on Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, more than a dozen octopus washed up lifeless.
Anna Strelchenko was walking along the beach last week when she encountered clusters of dead sea creatures. She recorded a video of one small stretch covered with fish, sea urchins, starfish and octopus and posted it to her social media accounts. Within days, the images were widely shared across Russia – evidence of the country’s latest ecological disaster.
“I never expected my video to get so much attention – at first I thought that maybe this was just the product of a really strong storm,” Strelchenko said. “But I had just felt awful seeing all of those dead octopi on the beach. It wasn’t just one or two; there must have been 20.”
Four months after a ruptured reservoir at a power plant in the Siberian city of Norilsk spilled 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into two rivers, another oil leak is believed to be responsible for the incident in Kamchatka. And just as in the Norilsk incident, local authorities’ initially dismissive response has come under sharp scrutiny.
On Saturday, Kamchatka’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology posted a video of Khalaktrysky Beach to Instagram with the caption: “The color of the water is normal, the smell of the air is normal, the beach is completely clean. . . . Nothing anomalous was recorded.”
The social media backlash was swift. Yuri Dud, a Russian video blogger with more than 4 million followers on Instagram, responded with a post of his own: Video showing discolored streaks of contamination in the water and another video of a dead octopus on the shore.
Khalaktrysky Beach, a popular surfing spot about 20 miles from the place where Strelchenko initially discovered the dead marine life, has been the subject of local surfers’ gripes for weeks. Katya Dyba, who works at the local Snowave Surf School, said she experienced foggy vision, a sore throat, nausea and fatigue after surfing on Sept. 14. She said other surfers were later diagnosed with poisoning.
The Russian branch of Greenpeace said tests conducted on water samples from Khalaktyrsky Beach showed petroleum levels four times higher than usual, and phenol levels were also 2.5 times higher. Local scuba divers reported seeing more dead sea animals at shallow depths over the weekend.
“There was this yellow-green film over the water,” Dyba said. “Now at Khalaktrysky Beach, the situation seems better, but we know that the contamination just moved south because people there are seeing the signs with the dead animals.”
On Sunday, the local government’s tone changed. Kamchatka Governor Vladimir Solodov said samples of the water had been sent to Moscow for analysis and he vowed to fire anyone who is found to have deliberately tried to cover up or embellish the crisis.
“We learned about the environmental situation from bloggers,” Solodov said. “I’m going to address the federal authorities with a proposal to establish a unified system of monitoring harmful factors for the environment.
“We should constantly monitor the condition of our main treasure, the ocean, and take proper steps. Today’s situation proves that this work on monitoring should be intensified – it is not sufficient as of now.”
The source and cause of the leak remain unclear. Russia’s Tass news agency, citing unnamed sources, reported that a commercial oil tanker was the likely culprit. But some locals have speculated that recent military training exercises could have caused the damage. The Defense Ministry has rejected the theory.
Cristina Rozenberg, who works for a tour company in Kamchatka, said locals pick berries and mushrooms around their beaches. She went to visit the site herself on Sunday morning.
“You just feel helpless,” Rozenberg said. “It’s a real tragedy because we don’t know how we can help. We all live on this ocean, we eat out of this ocean, our kids play in this ocean.”
“Honestly, I don’t know who is responsible, and I’m not sure local authorities know what to do, either.”