Hundreds of dead and injured birds have been recovered [Maritime New Zealand: Blair Harkness] 

A container ship which hit a reef, causing New Zealand's worst maritime disaster, may have been taking a shortcut when the accident occurred, the country's environment minister has suggested.

"It appears from the charts that they were in a rush to get to port, went full bore, cut the corner, and hit the reef," Nick Smith told national television station TV3 on Saturday.

The captain of the Rena, which ran aground on October 5, and the officer on navigational watch at the time of the incident have been charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.

The charge carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail.

Salvage workers said on Saturday that they hoped an oil leak from the stricken ship, which is stranded on a reef off the resort of Tauranga off the northern coast of New Zealand's North Island.

Nick Quinn, Maritime New Zealand's (MNZ) on-scene commander said the Rena was now stable and the stern had settled on a reef.

Observation flights continued to monitor the situation from the air, but Quinn said there were no reports of fresh oil leaking.

'Hazardous conditions'

He said salvage teams were on board the cargo vessel "working in very difficult and potentially hazardous conditions" to install fuel pumping equipment. Bad weather conditions had interrupted clean-up operations over the past few days.

They hoped to begin discharging oil into a waiting tanker by the end of the day.

Matthew Watson from the salvage company Svitzer told Radio New Zealand that a team on a fuel pumping barge half a nautical mile away was also preparing to remove the remaining oil.

Their main difficulty was finding a way to heat the fuel, which has cooled to a dense consistency and the ship's engines no long have the power to warm it, he said.

There are believed to still be 1,346 tonnes of oil on board the Rena, while about 330 tonnes have leaked into the ocean in an ecologically sensitive area teeming with wildlife including whales, dolphins, penguins, seals and rare sea birds.

Eighty-eight containers aboard the tanker have also fallen into the sea.

The disaster has angered New Zealanders, who have been restricted from using popular beaches because of oil pollution, while hundreds of dead and oil-soaked birds have been recovered.

Source: Agencies