Missing Tugboat 'Solo Creed' Resurfaces in Angola After $23m Oil Spill in Tobago

On February 7, 2024, an unidentified oil tanker washed up on the shores of the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, spilling oil across beaches, coral reefs and mangroves. Bellingcat previously identified the tanker as the barge “Gulfstream,” which was pulled by a tugboat named Solo Creed. We tracked its voyage via satellite imagery as it sailed from Panama to a location offshore from a Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) port in northern Venezuela where it went “dark” for several days by turning off its Automated Identification System (AIS) location transponder.

Bellingcat and the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian used open sources and maritime records to show that the Solo Creed was owned by individuals connected to Melaj Offshore Corporation, a Panamanian company with a history of transporting Venezuelan oil. However, when contacted by Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian, Augustine Jackson, an officer at Melaj, claimed that the tug had been sold in August 2023 to a man named Abraham Olalekan and was en route to Nigeria.

Nothing has been heard of the vessel in the months since.

But information released by the Angolan Navy on May 11, 2024, reported that the Solo Creed was seized off  the coast of the African nation’s capital city, Luanda, for unauthorised breach of its claimed offshore oil security perimeter. While the Solo Creed has not turned on its AIS location broadcast since it went dark on February 5, Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian were able to verify the current location of the Solo Creed using satellite imagery.

Map credit: Mapcreator

On May 11, 2024, the tug Solo Creed was detained by the Angolan Navy for violating the security perimeter of oil extraction blocks 17 and 18. These exclusive zones are operated by subsidiaries of BP and TotalEnergies, according to announcements on the companies’ websites.

A report by the Angola Press News Agency provides some information about the activities of the Solo Creed at the time of the detainment.

“Speaking to the press, the Angolan Navy commander Divaldo Fonseca said that the vessel’s occupants claimed that they intended to resupply with water and supplies, but without the appropriate authorization. […] Divaldo Fonseca reiterated the commitment of the Angolan Navy to continue developing actions to guarantee the inviolability of national waters.” 

In recent years, the maritime border between Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been in dispute. While neither block 17 nor 18 are located in disputed waters, several blocks to the north are.

A video news report by RTP África showed the Solo Creed after it had been detained. Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian geolocated this video to Luanda, where the ship appears to be at anchor in Luanda Bay.

Top: A screenshot from the RTP África video showing the Solo Creed. The two large vessels clearly visible in the background, a green Bourbon Offshore ship on the left , and a red DOF Subsea ship on the right, also match AIS data from the date of the report. Bottom: A screenshot from a 360 drone photo of Luanda uploaded to Google Maps by user Claudio González Jorge. Matching structures are highlighted to show the geolocation.

A high resolution satellite image captured on May 18, 2024, tasked by Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian, further corroborates this. A vessel matching the appearance of the Solo Creed in previous satellite images is visible at the location seen in the RTP África video.

SkySat imagery from Planet Labs PBC on May 18, 2024, shows the Solo Creed at anchor near Ilha de Luanda in Luanda, Angola.
The Solo Creed as captured in SkySat imagery in Luanda on May 18, 2024 and as captured offshore from Aruba on January 17, 2024, before the Tobago oil spill. The size, color and major features of the ship are the same. Imagery from Planet Labs PBC.

PlanetScope imagery shows that the Solo Creed arrived between May 9 and May 16, and was still present as of May 25.

Satellite imagery from May 16–May 25 showing the Solo Creed at anchor in Luanda Bay. Imagery from Planet Labs PBC.

The Solo Creed has not been seen in satellite or on-the-ground imagery since February 5, 2024, when it turned off its AIS location transponder. The new images of the tugboat show that while it has not changed its IMO registration number, it appears to have had its name altered to read just “SC.”

Top: The Solo Creed in Colón, Panama in, as seen in an image uploaded in December 2023 to MarineTraffic by Melaj Offshore Corporation. Bottom: The Solo Creed in Luanda, Angola, as seen in stills from an RTP África video news report on May 14, 2024. The original name SOLO CREED appears to have been repainted to read just “SC”, however the IMO number is unchanged.

Although the detainment of the Solo Creed was picked up by local media in Angola, reports did not mention the ship’s role in the oil spill three months earlier. On Thursday, May 23, the government of Trinidad and Tobago appeared to realise the connection. A press release was published by the Ministry of Energy and Energy Industries requesting that the Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs open communication with Angola. The document acknowledged the detainment but said the government was attempting to verify the location of the Solo Creed. 

The oil spill, which started in Tobago but reached as far as Bonaire, has an estimated cleanup cost of $23.5 million USD, according to the Trinidad and Tobago government in a report made to the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds.

No insurer has yet been identified for the Solo Creed and Gulfstream, and nobody has come forward to claim responsibility for the damages.

Bellingcat and the T&T Guardian previously reported a conversation with the claimed current owner of the Solo Creed, Abraham Olalekan. Reached for comment, Olalekan denied that the Solo Creed had been seized by the Angolan Navy. He further claimed to have been in communication with Trinidad and Tobago government and reiterated that “the barge has no insurance to help” with the oil spill.

Lotte van de Waal and members of Bellingcat’s Discord community contributed research for this story.

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