|The ship's owners said they were making efforts to minimise the environmental consequences of the incident [AFP]
The owners of a crippled container ship that ran aground off New Zealand have apologised for the country's worst pollution crisis as a salvage crew made a daring landing on the vessel.
The Liberian-flagged Rena's owner, Costamare Shipping Company of Greece, said on Thursday it was "deeply sorry" for the disaster.
In a video statement from Greece, Diamantis Manos, Costamare's managing director, said the company was working with New Zealand authorities to establish how the ship ran aground on October 5.
He said that it would not be appropriate to speculate on how the accident happened but described the ship's captain, who has been charged by New Zealand authorities, as "an experienced master" who "has an exemplary record".
Salvage crews were undecided on whether the remaining fuel could be pumped from the vessel before it breaks up.
Environmentalists have warned of a disaster for wildlife if all the ship's 1,870 tonnes of oil and 220 tonnes of diesel is allowed to spill into the ocean.
Officials said a helicopter winched salvage workers onto the deck of the stricken Rena, which was "creaking and groaning" as it threatened to break apart in the North Island's Bay of Plenty after hitting a reef last week.
"It's a highly risky operation to do," Bruce Anderson, a Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) salvage manager, said, adding that helicopters and navy ships were ready to evacuate the men at a moment's notice if the ship began to sink.
The boarding was a desperate attempt to restart efforts to offload oil from the vessel, which was abandoned on Tuesday as a storm bore down. The ship has since developed cracks in its hull and is listing badly on the reef.
Authorities, fearing that a breakup of the Rena is now inevitable, hope to drain its tanks to prevent further fuel from spewing into the environmentally sensitive area before the ship shears in two.
MNZ said anywhere from 350 to 700 tonnes of heavy fuel had already leaked from the Rena, fouling beaches and killing wildlife. They want to prevent all 1,700 tonnes on the vessel from being released if the ship breaks up and sinks.
Anderson said easing weather conditions off the coast of Tauranga were providing "a window" to get the oil off but it was still too early to say when pumping could resume.
The attempt to offload the oil came a day after Rena's Filipino captain was charged as up to 70 containers fell into rough seas and a black tide of oil washed up on beaches.
Mauro Balomanga appeared in a Tauranga city court amid a heavy police presence. He was charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk as New Zealand grapples with its worst maritime pollution disaster.
Balomanga was bailed but ordered to reappear on October 19, with the court ordering media not to publish pictures showing his face after his lawyer expressed fears that "the public may take matters into their own hands" with anger running high.
According to local reports, Balomanga had been captain of the ship only since March. The charge carries a maximum penalty of NZ$10,000 ($7,800), or 12 months in jail.
The ship's second officer, responsible for navigation at the time the Rena struck the reef, appeared in court on Thursday on a charge of "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk".
Up to 300 tonnes of heavy fuel has leaked into the environmentally sensitive Bay of Plenty since the vessel hit the Astrolabe Reef, 22km off the North Island coast, last Wednesday.
The amount of oil spilled by the stricken vessel had increased five-fold after it sustained further damage in a storm overnight, Nick Smith, New Zealand's environment minister, said on Tuesday.
"I'd like to acknowledge this event has come to a stage where it is New Zealand's most significant maritime environmental disaster."