A frantic rescue and cleanup operation is underway at Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where a coal-carrying ship ran aground Saturday and is spilling oil into the area's pristine waters.

tp-australia-oil-cp-8428832

Oil leaks from the Chinese-registered bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 that rests aground on Douglas Shoals, 113 kilometres east of Rockhampton, Australia. ((Queensland Maritime Safety/Associated Press))

The Chinese-registered Shen Neng 1 was carrying 975 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 65,000 tonnes of coal when it rammed into Douglas Shoal just after 5 p.m. local time Saturday. The area is 70 kilometres east of Great Keppel Island, northeast of Gladstone.

About two tonnes of oil have seeped into the water, creating a slick almost three kilometres long and 100 metres wide.

Initial reports also said the main engine room was breached, and the main engine and rudder severely damaged.

"One of the most worrying aspects is that the ship is still moving on the reef to the action of the seas, which is doing further damage," said Patrick Quirk, general manager of Maritime Safety Queensland.

"This could be one of the most complex and difficult save operations we've seen, certainly in Queensland maritime history and possibly Australia's," Queensland State Premier Anna Bligh said.

A major salvage team including two tug boats will begin "a very complex and delicate operation" to remove the vessel from the reef, Bligh said.

Aircraft sprayed chemical dispersants in an effort to break up the slick Sunday.

"It's in such a delicate part of the reef and the ship is in such a badly damaged state, managing this process will require all the specialist expertise we can bring to bear," she told ABC radio. She said it could take weeks to dislodge the ship.

'Very delicate part'

The area has shipping restrictions in order to protect the world's largest coral reef. It is listed as a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species.

The ship's owner, Shenzhen Energy, a subsidiary of the Cosco Group that is China's largest shipping operator, could be fined up to $925,400 for straying from a shipping lane used by 6,000 cargo vessels each year, Bligh said.

"This is a very delicate part of one of the most precious marine environments on earth and there are safe authorized shipping channels — and that's where this ship should have been," Bligh said.

A police boat was standing by to evacuate the 23 crew members if the ship breaks apart.

Conservation groups outraged

Numerous conservation groups have expressed outrage that bulk carriers can travel through the reef without a specialized marine pilot.

Shipping lanes in Australian waters typically require a seasoned captain to go aboard an incoming ship to help navigate around hazards. Until now, the government has said there is no need for a marine pilots around the protected area because large ships are banned there.

Maritime law specialist Michael White of the University of Queensland said oil is the major environmental threat posed by the grounding. While coal could do "considerable localized damage," it would be quick to dissipate.

Marine geologist Greg Webb from the Queensland University of Technology said the effects of an oil and coal spill could have unknown consequences.

"In the past we always just thought a reef could put up with anything," he told ABC radio. "And I guess over the last decade or so, we're beginning to understand that maybe they can't."

With files from CBC News