A boating incident that left the coral reef at Cayman’s Eden Rock dive site covered in sand was likely an ‘unfortunate accident’, according to both the Port Authority and the Department of Environment.
For the past few days, divers have been battling to save coral colonies, which rely on sunlight and oxygenated water to survive and were being smothered by the sand.
Many of the worst-affected corals have already died and Friday was highlighted by environment officials as the last point at which the volunteer operation to shift the sand would make any difference.
The cause of the damage is believed to be a cargo vessel that became stuck on the sandy bottom in George Town Harbour on Friday, 11 Sept.
The vessel, was heavily laden with aggregate and got “slightly grounded” on approach to the George Town dock, Port Director Joseph Woods told the Cayman Compass.
A tug was used to free the boat and assist it in reaching the dock to unload its cargo.
The operation stirred up sand which was transported by currents down the coast to Eden Rock.
Woods said there was no suggestion that anyone had done anything wrong.
There is no question of sanctions for the boat involved, which was operating within the law and was in compliance with all regulations of the port, according to Woods. The same ship has come into Cayman numerous times and its forward draft of 18 feet and aft draft of 21 feet are within the port’s designated limits.
“This was no one’s fault,” Woods added.
“The vessel was approaching the cargo dock completely outside of the Eden Rock area, which is marked by buoys, when it became lodged on an uneven part of the [sandy] sea bed and required the assistance of a tug to dislodge it.”
Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said it was possible that recent storms had changed the conditions on the ocean floor in the vicinity of Eden Rock.
“Closer to the port there is a large sand plane where it is relatively shallow and that sand is fairly dynamic,” he said.
“We don’t know at this stage whether the ship was a little deeper than normal, whether it was a lower tide or indeed if the sand had shifted due to recent storm events. There are a number of possible scenarios that resulted in this ship running into the sand.”
He said the incident had happened within the designated port area, away from Eden Rock.
“The most likely scenario is that this is just an unfortunate set of events. At this stage it purely looks like an unfortunate accident,” Austin said.
Preventing a recurrence would mean loading less cargo in order for the vessel to draw less water, Woods added. But he said there were other challenges to negotiate and that there was no way to totally eliminate risks from activity in Cayman’s only port to the adjacent reef.
“While every effort is made by everyone in the industry to avoid impacting Eden Rock, one must recognise that just by its mere location, adjacent to the port, in a designated port area, there will from time to time, regrettably be unintended impacts on Eden Rock,” he said.
“Everyone does their best to navigate as safely as they can and to have as little impact as they can to the environment.”
- Experienced divers willing to assist with the volunteer effort to move the sand should report to Eden Rock at 2pm Friday for the final day of the operation.