As dazzling fish dart between the fringes of rainbow patterned coral, a cruise ship plowed into what is thought to be the most spectacular reef in the world. Caught in low tide off the coast of West Papua, New Guinea, the British-owned ship carrying 102 guests is thought to have severely damaged 1,600 square meters (17,200 square feet) of coral reef.
The stranding happened on Saturday, March 4, as the 4,300-tonne (4,700 tons) ship Caledonian Sky was returning from a bird-watching trip, though how it managed to get caught on the reef when the vessel is equipped with radar and other navigational equipment is still unknown. Damage to the ship was apparently minimal, though it is also reported that as the boat was subsequently tugged out of the shallow water, further damage was done to the reef itself.
A local tourism organization has lamented on Facebook: “How can this happen? Anchor damage from ships like these is bad enough, but actually grounding a ship on a reef takes it to a whole new level”. The tour operator that owns the boat has, however, issued a statement calling the event “unfortunate,” and that “it is imperative that the reasons for it are fully investigated, understood and any lessons learned incorporated in operating procedures”.
The ship crashed into the reef located in the Raja Ampat archipelago, which is widely considered the most biodiverse marine environment on Earth, and to that effect probably the richest ecosystem both above and below water. It is thought to be home to over 1,700 different species of fish, at least 700 types of mollusk, and over 600 hard corals – over 75 percent of all described coral species worldwide.
According to the environmental website Mongabay, this special status, along with the site's popularity with scuba divers and its location within a National Park, mean that the tour operator is likely to face hefty fines. They report that the evaluation team will seek compensation of between $1.28 million to $1.92 million, which works out at around $800 to $1,200 per square meter destroyed by the ship.
The ship has not only resulted in the destruction of important structural elements of the reef, but reports suggest that it has already significantly reduced the diversity of at least eight different genera of corals. The money that will hopefully be claimed from the company will be put back into restoring what is one of the world’s most popular dive sites, though it is thought it could take up to a decade to fully return it to how it once was.