Jamaican authorities are installing the region’s first floating cruise pier this month at the historic underwater city of Port Royal.
The concept of a floating pier was briefly considered for the Cayman Islands, but is not being contemplated as part of the current bid process. Some campaigners would like to see the idea brought back to the table, amid ongoing concern about the environmental damage anticipated as a result of constructing the planned berthing facility.
The SeaWalk pier, which was delivered to Jamaica earlier this month, is being deployed in Port Royal to avoid damaging the important ecological and historical environment, including a sunken city.
Jamaican authorities said the aim was to preserve the area’s environmental and cultural heritage, while providing a pier for visiting cruise ships.
Ole Heggheim, of the Norwegian company SeaWalk, said a similar construction could be an option for Cayman.
He said SeaWalk had been installed in the UNESCO World Heritage fjord of Geiranger and is the only cruise pier system that could be used in an environmentally fragile and unique environment such as Port Royal without any negative impact. Dredging and blasting to create a conventional pier was not an option for the site.
He said the floating pier used a mooring system for the cruise ships that was similar to those deployed for oil platforms in the North Sea, and could withstand severe weather.
The company has installed six floating piers around the world. The Port Royal project will be its first in the Caribbean.
Mr. Heggheim said the piers cost around US$10 million to install and can be moved in a hurricane. He believes they will become more common in the coming years as different ports look for environmentally friendly ways to take advantage of growing cruise tourism.
“I think the Port Royal project is the first of many in the Caribbean,” he said. “I am very optimistic because the region has a good tourism product. We haven’t studied Cayman in detail or had discussions with the authorities, but I am confident we could find a solution.
“Based on the tremendous benefit the SeaWalk would have both for the environment and financially, we definitely think it is worthwhile to look into.”
Some in Cayman believe the Port Royal project points the way forward for the island amid ongoing concerns about damage to reefs in George Town harbor. Linda Clark, an accountant who just completed a masters in marine environmental management, is among those advocating against the idea of concrete piers in George Town.
She said wrecks like the Cali and the Balboa had significant historical importance and the reefs around George Town harbor were the birthplace of scuba diving in the Cayman Islands. She said the Jamaica SeaWalk project was an example of what could be achieved through the use of technology.
“I absolutely advocate that we look into it,” she said. “Technology is constantly changing. We have to be able to adapt and say at this point that this is a better idea.”
She added that the costs quoted for the floating pier system, between $7 and $10 million, were considerably less expensive than a concrete pier.
“At the cost of only $7 million for the pier,” she said, “it would seem the best value for money, and preserve the cultural, historic and environmental sensitivity of the area.”
Government’s marine engineering consultants Baird did look at a similar floating pier concept, promoted by businessmen Reginald Delapenha and Bo Miller, in their early evaluations of potential designs. In a February 2018 report, they concluded there were significant potential benefits to the idea, but some potentially fatal technical concerns.
They wrote, “The proposed floating pier concept provides a number of potential significant benefits as compared to a fixed pier concept, including reduced environmental impacts (i.e., elimination of dredging, and reduced damage to corals), as well as a reduced duration of on-site construction activities and the associated reduction in impacts to existing businesses and operations. “However, there are a number of significant technical challenges to address in the design of such a facility, and it is not apparent that these issues have been considered by the proponent at this time.
“In particular, Baird questions the ability to develop a sufficiently robust mooring system given the significant water depths into which the floating piers would extend. Further, the proposed concept is unique, and without precedent, for a site exposed to hurricane waves.”
Ms. Clark said the advances in technology and the arrival of the SeaWalk in the region, as well as ongoing concerns about the impact of concrete piers, showed the system was worth looking into.