Sri Lankan Wildlife Department officials remove the carcass of a marine turtle for further examination after it washed ashore on a beach in the suburbs of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 21. (Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Dead sea animals continue to wash onto Sri Lanka’s beaches weeks after a massive cargo ship carrying hazardous chemicals caught fire and then sank off the coast of Colombo, the country’s capital.

Creatures including dolphins, turtles and a blue whale — some with reported burn marks — have landed on the country’s beaches, increasing environmentalists’ fears that the effects may be severe and long-lasting.

“What is happening right now is unnatural,” said Muditha Katuwawala of Pearl Protectors, a Sri Lankan marine conservation organization. He expressed concern at the number of reported wildlife fatalities since the ship caught fire. “This is definitely far beyond any number that we’ve ever seen.”

The Sri Lankan government has said the links to the ship are only “provisionally” confirmed, and that more testing is being conducted, the Associated Press reported.

“Provisionally, we can say that these deaths were caused by two methods — one is due to burns from the heat and secondly due to chemicals. These are obvious,” said Anil Jasinghe, secretary of the environment ministry.

Katuwawala said dozens of dead turtles and 19 other sea creatures had been reported to his organization, an amount he said was “very unusual” and also likely an undercount.

“These turtles always return back to our shores to lay their eggs,” he said. “When they return and this is the homecoming, that’s actually quite sad.”

The X-Press Pearl, a Singapore-flagged container ship, reported a fire aboard on May 20 while near the port of Colombo. The blaze burned for more than a week, while efforts to move the ship to deeper waters failed. The ship was holding hazardous chemicals such as nitric acid, sodium methoxide and methanol. Also aboard were billions of lentil-sized plastic pellets, known as nurdles, which spilled into the water and blanketed nearby beaches as the ship sank.


Sri Lankan Navy soldiers work on a beach in Colombo on May 27 to remove debris washed ashore from the Singapore-registered container ship X-Press Pearl. (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

While dead animals sometimes wash ashore, especially when Sri Lanka’s monsoon season causes rough seas, the recent reports of burns on some of their carcasses and the increased number of reported deaths indicate a potential link to the ship, conservationists said.

The United Nations on Saturday warned the disaster could have devastating consequences.

“An environmental emergency of this nature causes significant damage to the planet by the release of hazardous substances into the ecosystem,” said U.N. Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy in a statement. “This, in turn, threatens lives and livelihoods of the population in the coastal areas.”

A U.N.-linked team of oil spill and chemical experts is working with the government to assess the extent of the damage.

Read more:

A burning ship. Tons of toxic cargo. An ecosystem in the balance.

Why plastic pellets called ‘nurdles’ are threatening miles of Sri Lanka’s coastline

A burning ship covered beautiful beaches in plastic ‘snow.’ Now Sri Lanka faces an environmental disaster.