After months of anger and outcry over an oil spill which inflicted $23m in damage on Tobago’s shores, the Trinidad and Tobago government says it is pursuing the Solo Creed tugboat, now seized by the Angolan Navy.

In February, the Gulfstream tanker (pulled by Solo Creed) capsized and then spilt oil across approximately 88km of Tobagonian coral reefs, beaches and other “eco-sensitive areas”.

The Solo Creed then sailed from Panama to a location offshore from a Venezuelan port operated by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), where it then went ‘dark’ by turning off its Automated Identification System (AIS) location transponder.

There had been no sign of the vessel since – until Angolan authorities seized it on 11 May for violating oil security perimeters.

Without authorisation, the tugboat allegedly breached oil extraction blocks 17 and 18, exclusive zones operated by subsidiaries of TotalEnergies and BP, according to the companies’ websites.

While the Gulfstream remains off-grid, a recent investigation by Bellingcat and the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian verified that the Solo Creed has recently been just offshore of Luanda, Angola’s capital.

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Angolan Navy commander Divaldo Fonseca said the Solo Creed’s crew claimed they had intended to resupply at Luanda. None of the nine crew members (four Nigerians, two Panamanians, two Hondurans and a Venezuelan) raised any flags or sought authorisation as the tugboat circulated the oil security perimeters.

Who owns the Gulfstream and Solo Creed?

Last week, Trinidad and Tobago’s Energy Ministry reaffirmed the country's urgent pursuit of the Solo Creed, saying it will use “all resources at its disposal to attempt to find those responsible for the oil spill in Tobago”.

Officials from both Trinidad and Tobago and Angola are now in discussion over the next moves, but both countries are likely to be interested in the involvement of the Melaj Offshore Corporation.

Melaj, a Panamanian company which often transports Venezuelan oil, is linked to the Tobago spill through Melissa Rona Gonzalez, a senior figure within the corporation.

Public data from Panama’s corporate registry shows Gonzalez is an officer at Melaj, while Bellingcat revealed Gonzalez was the listed owner of the Solo Creed during the incident in February. The last known photograph of the Solo Creed was uploaded to satellite maritime platform MarineTraffic in December by the user ‘Melaj Offshore Corp’.

Oil-stained shorelines at Rockly Bay, Tobago, on 10 February (three days after the Gulfstream capsized). Credit: Clement Williams / Getty.

Melaj has previously come under fire for chartering tankers to transport PDVSA’s sanctioned Venezuelan oil. Melaj loaded multiple oil cargoes after US sanctions were announced in 2019, Reuters reported.

Identifying the owner of the Gulfstream has so far not been possible, as the tanker appears not to have an International Maritime Organisation (IMO) registration number.

Nonetheless, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago are under immense pressure to find the culpable parties. The Caribbean nation has suffered more than its fair share of oil-related environmental disasters, notably the 1979 oil spill, the fifth-largest on record.

Some 44 years on, and Trinidad and Tobago’s citizens and energy ministry officials alike are desperate to put to bed this latest disaster and bring those responsible to justice.