Hundreds of divers joined a two-day volunteer effort this week to help save the coral reef at Eden Rock that had been smothered by sand.
The sand, dumped on the reef after a visiting cargo ship grounded in George Town Harbour and had to be pulled clear by a tugboat, had already killed many of the corals at the popular dive site before the rescue effort began.
The extent of the damage only came to light after divers reported it on Monday.
The Department of Environment used a mechanical suction pump to clear some of the sand but more manpower was required.
An appeal to the dive community prompted an “incredible response”, with at least 150 divers turning up on Wednesday to assist.
The divers, who returned to the site Thursday to resume the operation, are “fighting the clock”, said Tammi Warrender, who coordinated the volunteer effort.
Any coral still buried under sand by Friday is not likely to survive, she said.
Tim Austin, the deputy director of the Department of Environment, said, “I have to say there will be quite a bit of coral mortality as a result of this.”
He said DoE officers and volunteer divers were essentially engaged in a damage-limitation exercise. By using their hands in a wafting motion to create turbulence, divers can slowly clear the sand from the coral heads.
“It is hard work and it is intensive for the people involved but it is making a difference,” he said.
The Cayman Compass joined the first volunteer dive on Wednesday afternoon.
At that stage, a stretch of reef, encompassing Eden Rock and Devil’s Grotto, was covered in a heavy dusting of sand. Occasional brightly coloured corals, untouched by the sandstorm, stood in stark relief.
Divers swarmed over the site, using their hands to generate current in a delicate waving motion that looks a little like underwater dusting.
It was a painstaking process but puffs of sand slowly shifted from the reef, clouding the clear water before settling on the hardpan bottom.
“It is a pretty serious situation out there,” said Rory McDonough, who was among the volunteers.
“I was freediving and you could really see the impact from above. You could see the difference everyone was making in such a short time,” he said.
Lindsey Mobley, a dive instructor at the neighbouring Don Foster’s dive shop, first spotted the damage on Tuesday.
“I went diving with a friend and we just went out to the sand and realised all the sand was on the reef,” she said. “We pretty much dive Eden Rock and Don Foster’s every day so to see it like that is horrible.”
Her dive buddy and fellow instructor Nick Curtis said he hoped the efforts of the divers could make a difference.
Steff Mcdermot, another volunteer diver, said it was “all hands on deck” any time the DoE put out a call for help.
“I think it’s a shame we had to go down this route and have to call for the entire community to come out to deal with this, but I am happy to know that when a situation like this happens, you can rely on the community to come together,” she said.
Warrender said the response and the efforts of the dive volunteers had been incredible.
“There is cause for optimism when you have a community response like this,” she said. “It was such an amazing turnout. We went out with just eight of us on Tuesday and we felt we were making a difference, so having 150 people out on the reef has made a massive difference.”
She said the fact that the DoE was not informed about the impact from the incident until Monday had made the rescue effort more difficult.
Warrender said the damage to coral was “horrific” and comparable in scale to the incident involving the cargo ship, Saga, which ran into the reef in 2016, shaving the tops of shallow coral heads and leaving rubble in its wake.
The DoE will assess and quantify the extent of the coral loss from the incident in the coming weeks.
Austin said around 800 linear feet of reef just off the coast had been impacted.
“The likely suspect at the time was a ship operating in the harbour that ran into the sand, ran aground, and then the tug… was used to pull the ship to the wharf, and in doing so… stirred up a great deal of sand,” he said. “That sand was transported by water current down the reef to Eden Rock and consequently has smothered the living coral.”
The incident is believed to have happened between 4:30pm and 6:30pm on Friday, 11 Sept.