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Year in Review: Coral reefs take pounding from visiting vessels

Cayman’s coral reefs have flourished for centuries, and are widely recognised as some of the best in the world. But their future is in jeopardy due to man-made threats. Two major reef damage incidents made headlines in 2016, changing our underwater landscape forever.

Things will certainly never be the same at Eden Rock. Last month the 328-foot container ship ‘Saga’ ran aground, causing portions of the underwater cavern system to collapse. And back in January, billionaire Paul Allen’s mega yacht Tatoosh and its anchor chain mashed up a west side reef, kicking off what became a battle with the Department of Environment over accountability.

On January 14th, 2016, billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s 300-foot mega-yacht Tatoosh was anchored in the west bay replenishment zone.

A divemaster noticed damage to the coral reef underneath the ship, and made a report to the DOE. Initial estimates tallied the damage at 12,000 sq/ft. That figure was later revised to almost 14,000 sq/ft.

“This damage was very fresh, within a day or so. It’s the only vessel that size capable of doing the damage, so I’d say it’s highly confident that the damage was from Tatoosh,” said DOE Deputy Director Scott Slaybaugh in January.

But the billionaire and his company, Vulcan Inc., saw the situation a little differently, even trying to pin the blame for the incident on shifting winds and the Port Authority.

After weeks of bickering with the DOE over the size and source of the damage, Mr. Allen’s company was allowed to commence a self-funded reef restoration project, which was completed in April by outside firm Polaris Applied Sciences.

“We’ve got to nip this in the bud now and not allow this to happen anymore,” said long-time diver and conservationist Peter Milburn in February.

Mr. Milburn’s calls for permanent mega yacht moorings would be answered in October, when government announced it had come to a financial settlement with Mr. Allen’s company TDE Maritime.

“Unfortunately we are not in a position to disclose it because we’ve agreed a non-disclosure, but I can say that it reflects a commensurate value with the damage that was done,” Environment Minister Wayne Panton told Cayman 27 as the settlement was confirmed.

Meanwhile, volunteers crossed the finish line on a two-year project to restore 16,000 sq/ft of reef damaged by the Carnival Magic cruise liner back in August 2014.

2016 also marked the 20-year anniversary of the Maasdaam cruise ship grounding (12 January 1996) and successful reef restoration project at Bob Soto’s reef.


And on November 25th, just before dawn, the 328-foot ‘Saga’ container ship ran aground at one of Cayman’s most popular and photogenic dive sites; Eden Rock, destroying 8,300 sq/ft of reef, and causing portions of the swim-through cavern system to collapse.

The ship’s owners accepted liability for the damage just days after the incident, and the DOE is reviewing a plan from the same firm that handled the Tatoosh restoration to restore the Eden Rock site.

Another issue looming large over the future health of Cayman’s reefs as we enter 2017; government’s plan to build a cruise berthing facility in George Town.  Those on both sides of the pier debate have both used these recurring reef damage incidents to bolster their arguments for or against the project.

Government said it’s awaiting a report which will detail what it will cost to build the piers in deeper water to minimise dredging. That’s expected as soon as January.

About the author

Joe Avary

Joe Avary

Joe Avary has been with Cayman 27 since 2014. He brings 20 years in television experience to the job, working hard every day to bring the people of Cayman stories that inform the public and make a difference in the community. Joe hopes his love for the Cayman Islands shines through in his informative and entertaining weather reports. If you have a story idea for Joe or just want to say hello, call him at 324-2141 or send an email to josephavary@hurleysmedia.ky

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