The US Navy said yesterday it needed to remove thousands of litres of oil from a minesweeper stuck on World Heritage-listed coral in the Philippines, warning it was too badly damaged to be towed away.
The 68-metre USS Guardian, which became embedded in the Tubbataha Reef a week ago, would have to be lifted onto another ship or barge, a process that might take another two weeks, said Rear Admiral Thomas Carney. Photos show the entire ship aground on the reef, in an area which prohibits navigation by all vessels except registered tourism and research boats.
"The option that we hoped to be able to tow the ship off the reef is not available," said Carney, who heads the US Navy's logistics group in the western Pacific. "It's too badly damaged. It's got hull penetrations in several places, and there's a significant amount of water inside the ship right now."
He said the Guardian had listed after being battered by huge waves, and the most pressing issue was to remove 57,000 litres of fuel. "The first priority is to get the fuel out of the ship as soon as possible," Carney said.
Carney described the salvage operation as "a very deliberate, complicated process" involving at least two more US Navy vessels.
"It depends on the environmental conditions out there as to how safely we can proceed," he said.
American divers have been on board to determine the ship's stability, as well as secure or remove crucial equipment inside the vessel to make it lighter for lifting, Carney said.
While Carney said it was too early to determine how much damage the Guardian has caused, the Philippine government reported this week that about 1,000 square metres of coral had already been impacted.
Tubbataha, a Unesco World Heritage site in a remote part of the Sulu Sea, is famous for its rich marine life and coral that rivals Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The incident has stoked anger in the Philippines, with the US Navy yet to explain why it was sailing through a protected marine sanctuary en route to Indonesia. Under Philippine laws, the sanctuary is off-limits to ships except for research or tourism approved by the government.
The head of the agency supervising the sanctuary said this week that the captain of the ship ignored repeated warnings that it was nearing the reef. The agency recommended the US Navy be fined for "unauthorised entry" into the area.
Philippines congressman Antonio Alvarez, representing the nearby island of Palawan, has accused the ship's crew of wanting to "take a quick dip" in the pristine waters of the reef. "They should just admit that it was an R and R (rest and recreation) gone wrong," he told the Philstar website.
The ship was returning from a port call in Subic Bay when the grounding occurred.
Carney declined to explain why the Guardian was sailing in the area, saying that was still the subject of investigation.
He repeated a US Navy apology made last weekend. "We express our deepest regret that we are in this situation, and we are committed to removing the ship from the reef as soon as possible," he said.