The Erika, laden with 31,000 tonnes of heavy fuel, was en route from Dunkirk (France) to Livorno (Italy) in very rough sea conditions. It encountered structural problems off the Bay of Biscay and sent out an alert message. It then proceeded to transfer the cargo from tank to tank, and the captain informed the French authorities that the situation was under control and that he was heading to the port of Donges, at reduced speed. On the 12 December at 6:05 am the captain sent out a Mayday: the ship was breaking in two.
Local wildlife responders in Brittany had almost a week to prepare for the hundreds of oiled birds that were expected to arrive. Thousands of animals arrived on a daily basis over a period of three weeks, overwhelming the system that was set up. 58 species of seabirds were taken to different care centres: 14 care centres in France, 1 in England, 10 in Belgium and 10 in Holland. Oiled seabirds were cleaned and fed, survivors were subsequently released.