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Official: Ship aground near Great Barrier Reef was off course

By Sarah Aarthun, CNN
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Oil spill threatens Great Barrier Reef
  • NEW: Ship was over 17 miles off course when it ended up on a shoal in the Great Barrier Reef
  • NEW: Tug boat with a tow rope was helping Monday to stabilize the ship
  • NEW: Small oil slick did not appear to be threatening reef after dispersants sprayed
  • Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 ran aground Saturday evening off coast of Queensland

(CNN) -- A Chinese-registered ship that ran aground Saturday off the coast of Australia was more than 17 miles off course when it ended up on a shoal in the Great Barrier Reef, prompting concerns of an oil spill near the world's largest coral reef system, a maritime safety spokesman said Monday.

A tug boat with a tow rope was helping Monday to stabilize the ship, called Shen Neng 1, and a second was on its way to the area to assist, Adam Nicholson, a spokesman for Maritime Safety Queensland, told CNN.

A small oil slick generated from the ship's grounding did not appear to be threatening the Great Barrier Reef after crews sprayed dispersants on it and surface netting helped to contain it, Nicholson said.

The slick was a result of oil leaking from the ship's fuel lines and engines, but "the good news is that the (fuel) tanks remain intact," Nicholson said.

Video: Calls for probe into ship grounding

"Very little if any oil is leaking into the water at the moment," he said.

Salvage crews were on board the ship Monday to assess the vessel's structural integrity and determine the best way to move it off the shoal -- a combination of shell and sand -- near the southernmost point of the Great Barrier Reef, just north of Great Keppel Island.

The ship was carrying about 65,000 tons of coal to China from the Australian port of Gladstone when it ran aground at about 5:10 p.m. Saturday, according to a Queensland state government statement. About 950 tons of oil were on board.

Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh expressed strong concern about a spill in a critical environmental area.

"This is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and any oil is unacceptable," she said.

She added, "I suspect that this incident will now give even sharper focus on whether or not permanent pilots (to guide ships) should be in this area."

However, Nicholson said the ship's captain had a 10-mile-wide channel to navigate through in an area where pilots aren't needed -- a relatively wide open section of sea, 70 kilometers (43 miles) off shore and away from the larger mass of coral most people associate with the Great Barrier Reef.

"He got 15 nautical miles (17.3 miles) off course, which is just outrageous," said Nicholson, who likened it to a car veering off a 2-mile wide road.

"We have thousands of boats moving in that same space every year and nothing has ever happened like this," he said.

A review of the incident is under way, Nicholson said.

The Great Barrier Reef is made up of roughly 3,000 individual reefs and 900 island spanning over 2,600 km (1,600 miles) off the coast of Queensland in the Coral Sea.