A Japanese freighter that spilled oil after it ran aground off Mauritius last month had navigated closer to the island in order to get a mobile network connection to obtain information about the new coronavirus in the crew members' home countries, according to a judicial source familiar with the matter.

The crew of the vessel owned by Nagashiki Shipping Co. and operated by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., both Japanese companies, "wanted to talk to (their) families because they are aware of COVID-19 in their countries," the source told Kyodo News in a recent phone interview.

Supplied photo taken Aug. 16, 2020, shows a bulk carrier that ran aground off the island of Mauritius on July 25 having split apart. (Photo courtesy of lexpress.mu)(Kyodo)  

Crew members from several Asian countries had planned to connect to the internet using a Sri Lankan SIM card belonging to the first officer and tried to call family through the WhatsApp messaging service, according to the source.

Before the ship ran aground, a birthday party had been held for a member of the multinational crew, comprised of three Indians, one Sri Lankan and 16 Filipinos.

Alcohol was consumed at the party, which had been attended by the off-duty captain and most crew members. It is unclear if the first officer, who was in charge of steering the vessel, participated.

The Panama-flagged bulk carrier Wakashio was en route to Brazil from China via Singapore when it ran aground near Pointe d'Esny, an area designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The vessel was carrying a total of some 3,800 tons of fuel oil and more than 1,000 tons of oil began to leak from the vessel when one of the five fuel tanks cracked.

Local police last Tuesday arrested the captain, an Indian national, together with the first officer, a Sri Lankan, on suspicion of negligence in operating the vessel.

Private satellite data that tracked the ship's path showed it had approached Mauritius without slowing down. According to the source, the police are still trying to determine why the crew did not slow down to connect to the internet, or change course to avoid the reef.

The captain and crew, who have acknowledged negligence in the grounding, have apologized to the people of Mauritius and expressed remorse, the source said.