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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, February 12, 2005

Freed ship leaves 'a lot of damage'

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

Biologists, stunned at the extent of reef damage after their initial survey yesterday, said it may take years of work to help the Barbers Point reef recover from the grounding of the bulk carrier Cape Flattery.

The bulk carrier Cape Flattery is docked in Kalaeloa Barbers Point Harbor after being floated off the reef yesterday morning. Damage to the ship is visible at the waterline.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

They saw big coral heads partly crushed and knocked over, schools of fishes feeding on pulverized sea urchins, fan corals shattered, and a vast, gray pavement where cement being offloaded from the stricken ship spilled into the sea and hardened in place.

"A lot of damage. Suffice it to say that there was considerable damage, in terms of the damaged and broken corals under the ship, the concrete that has solidified on the bottom and the peripheral damage, which includes large coral heads smashed and toppled," said John Naughton, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist.

The vessel ran aground Feb. 2 while attempting to enter the Kalaeloa Barbers Point Harbor. The Coast Guard is conducting an investigation.

Naughton said a team of eight divers and staff went to the site yesterday after the 555-foot Hong Kong-flagged ship was floated off the reef at 2:22 a.m.

The marine survey showed damage extended much farther from where the ship was aground than anyone expected, Naughton said.

State coral reef biologist Dave Gulko agreed. "There's just a lot of damage down there," Gulko said. "We'll need ... to see if there's things we can save immediately."

Many of the big coral heads have extensive associated marine communities of animals, fishes, algae and more. Many are knocked over and damaged, but for now are still living.

"We'd like to see if we can save some of these before they die," Gulko said.

Naughton said that could mean sending divers down to prop them up, and to use specialized marine adhesives to reconnect them to the ocean floor.

"Some of these corals, if we can just right them, they should do all right," Naughton said. "Those corals are important. They build the structure of the reef, and a lot of fish and invertebrates use them."

The men said they cannot estimate the size of the damaged area. Naughton said teams of divers next week will begin a detailed assessment.

He said the affected reef ranges from 20 feet to 60 feet in depth. The center of the zone is the area where the Cape Flattery spent the past eight days, a region of flattened reef that exhibits distinct white scarring of crushed coral and coralline algae, and is "pretty much scraped clean."

He said a lot of unexpected damage around the boat may have been caused by the ship's anchor and the movement of steel cables used by the tugboats that attended the ship.

"We can't imagine what else could have done it," Naughton said.

There was also evidence in the region that the ship may have scraped along the edge of the reef before it finally went aground.

The good news was that the ship missed vastly more precious reef resources nearby, Naughton said.

Between 100 and 200 yards toward shore, there are massive, ancient coral heads that marine biologists said are extremely important reef features. One issue now is to ensure that broken corals don't roll toward shore on the next big ocean swell and injure those coral fields, Naughton said.

The Cape Flattery was inbound for Barbers Point with a cargo of 27,100 metric tons of cement, and carrying 128,000 gallons of fuel oil. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Steve Carleton said that one of the questions in the Coast Guard investigation is whether the ship had a harbor pilot aboard.

Large vessels, before entering Hawai'i harbors, customarily bring aboard a pilot who has specific knowledge of local conditions. Carleton said he did not know whether the Cape Flattery had a pilot aboard when it grounded about 400 yards off shore. The Coast Guard said the cause of the grounding remains under investigation.

Nearly all the ship's fuel oil and roughly 9,000 metric tons of cement were offloaded. Observers on shore reported seeing large quantities of cement spilling into the ocean during the offloading — apparently causing the rock-hard fresh concrete field biologists found next to the grounding site.

As the fuel and cargo were removed, the ship pumped seawater aboard as ballast to keep it from moving on the reef. When the ballast water was pumped off yesterday morning, the tide was coming in, and Carleton said "it just popped off the reef."

Tugs brought the ship to a point about a mile from shore, where it anchored while divers checked the condition of the hull, and specialists probed the internal tanks for damage. The ship's original crew of 23 remains aboard. The Cape Flattery was allowed into the harbor after the Coast Guard's captain of the port concluded it was safe.

There have been no signs of any fuel leaking into the ocean from the ship, before or after the ship's refloating.

A league of organizations, referred to as the unified command, worked together on the situation. Among its members are the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Pacific Basin Shipping, the state Departments of Health and of Land and Natural Resources, the Marine Spill Response Corporation, and the Pacific Environmental Corporation.

The Cape Flattery is managed by Pacific Basin Shipping HK Ltd. "We're really grateful for all the members that kicked in. It was really sort of an exemplary partnership," said the firm's representative, Jim Lawrence.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.