The salvage operation to remove tonnes of fuel oil from the stricken container ship Rena is under way.
The 47,000-tonne vessel struck the Astrolabe reef, about 12 nautical miles off the coast from Tauranga, at about 2.20am on Wednesday.
Maritime New Zealand says the 20 to 30 tonnes of fuel oil already spilled can't be stopped from reaching the shore, but the rest of the 1700 tonnes on board is being moved from two tanks in the ship's damaged bow and transferred to a barge for taking ashore.
It was not known how long this would take but Maritime New Zealand said on Sunday night that crews were ready to work through the night.[image:3299:half:right]
PM wants answers
Prime Minister John Key, who flew over the stranded vessel on Sunday afternoon and also toured the incident response centre that has been set up, says serious questions need to be answered as to why the Rena hit the reef.
"People know about the reef," he says, "and for it to plough into it for no particular reason - at night, in calm waters - tells you something terrible has gone wrong and we need to understand why."
Mr Key says two inquiries are under way and the Government is very keen to understand how such a catastrophe could occur.
The Green Party's spokesperson for marine conservation, Gareth Hughes, says officials have squandered the opportunity to stop the oil spreading, and the Government should take over full legal responsibility for the salvage.
Severe weather ahead
Maritime New Zealand spokesperson Ross Henderson says they are concerned about the severe weather warning issued for Bay of Plenty.
MetService says gale-force north-to-northwest winds will hit the area on Monday along with heavy rain, and the seas will be rough.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce says the oil is now likely to hit Papamoa beach by Wednesday at the earliest.
Maritime New Zealand's salvage unit manager, Bruce Anderson, says the containers on board the Rena are being secured more tightly in anticipation of the bad weather.
Nine affected birds found
On Saturday, more black oil leaked from the ship and a chemical dispersant continued to be used to break up the slick. Another little blue penguin covered in oil has been found by the wildlife response team, which brings the number of affected birds found to nine.
The company charged with the salvage operation, Svitzer Salvage, says the fuel oil still on the Rena needs to be removed before the vessel's cargo can be dealt with and an attempt made to refloat the ship.
Teams have been transferring other pollutants on the ship - including paint, grease, hydraulic oils and lubricants - to a small support vessel.
About 200 people were involved in the oil response team on Sunday and a further 500 are on standby.
Maritime New Zealand is asking people who see what they think may be oil on a shoreline to ring 0800 OIL SPILL (0800-645-774).
Anyone who finds oiled birds or sealife is advised not to handle them or try to clean them but to phone 0800-333-771.