Wellington: One half of a cargo ship that ran aground on a New Zealand reef three months ago began sinking into the ocean on Tuesday.
Maritime New Zealand spokesman James Sygrove said that the stern section of the vessel Rena began slipping from its previous position on the Astrolabe reef at about 9 am New Zealand time and three hours later was about three-quarters submerged.
"The front 30 meters (100 feet) is still above the waterline, but the back section and the bridge are all under the water," he said.
Sygrove said the bow section of the boat remained firmly wedged on the reef. He said there is plenty of wood, plastic and other debris floating around the sinking stern section.
"It's quite a fluid situation," he said, adding that authorities remain unsure of what will happen next.
The maritime agency issued an update early Tuesday afternoon saying that the mostly submerged stern section remained perched on the edge of the reef and that a small amount of oil and some containers had fallen overboard along with the debris.
The 774-foot (236-meter) vessel split in two over the weekend amid heavy seas. It has been battered on the reef near the North Island port of Tauranga since it ran aground October 05.
About 150 cargo containers have spilled into the sea since the weekend, with more than 800 still aboard. Many more containers are expected to fall off as the stern sinks.
In the days after it ran aground, the Rena spilled about 400 tons of fuel oil, fouling pristine beaches and killing thousands of seabirds in what has been labeled New Zealand's worst maritime environmental disaster.
Maritime New Zealand estimates that less than 100 tons of oil remains on the ship after salvage crews managed to remove much of the remaining oil and nearly 400 containers. However, it was a slow process removing containers and hundreds were still aboard when it split apart.
New Zealand police closed access to one beach on Monday after some people were seen scavenging bags of powdered milk that had washed ashore. Authorities warned that the milk may be unsafe.
More than 30 containers from the ship and plenty of loose debris has washed up at local beaches since the Rena split apart, and authorities have been working to tow other containers out to sea to prevent more from coming ashore. Salvage crews have attached beacons and buoys to some containers so they can be more easily recovered later.
First Published: Tuesday, January 10, 2012, 12:33