NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

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From Dynamite to Deconstruction, or How to Remove Ships from Coral Reefs

USS Guardian grounded on coral reef with tug removing fuel and wastewater.

SULU SEA (Jan. 28, 2013) The U.S. Navy contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. No fuel has leaked since the grounding and all of the approximately 15,000 gallons on board Guardian was safely transferred to Vos Apollo during two days of controlled de-fueling operations on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. With the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it has grounded on the reef, dismantling the ship in sections is the only supportable salvage option. Since Guardian’s grounding, the Navy has been working meticulously to salvage any reusable equipment, retrieve the crew’s personal effects, and remove any potentially harmful materials. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy)

On January 17, 2013, the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines. Salvage experts evaluated various options for removing the ship, including towing or pulling it off the reef, but concluded that such efforts would cause even more damage  to the reef and the ship’s hull. Earlier this month, the Navy decided to dismantle the ship and remove it in smaller sections in order to minimize damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.

The Tubbataha Reef, where the ship grounded in the Sulu Sea, is a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity, pristine reefs, and protected nesting habitat for marine birds and sea turtles.

The photos of the stranded ship and the concern about the corals in this part of the world reminded me of a story about the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) vessel Fathomer.  The USC&GS mission was to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety. Today, this part of NOAA is called the Office of Coast Survey, which produces navigational products, data, and services to keep maritime commerce moving and to protect life and property at sea. (Editor’s note: You can check out their WordPress blog at

I came across old photos of the Fathomer when I was working on a project studying the impact of vessel groundings on corals.  That story ended quite differently than the USS Guardian, and shows how environmental protection has become a much bigger concern for salvors.  In the old days, the focus of salvage was strictly to save the ship and cargo, but modern salvors (salvage crews) have a much bigger emphasis on protecting the environment.

On August 15, 1936, the Fathomer dragged anchor in a typhoon and, like the USS Guardian, ended up grounded on a coral reef in the Philippine Islands[1].  At that time, the Philippines were a commonwealth of the United States, and the Fathomer was surveying and charting the islands.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936. (NOAA)

The story of the Fathomer’s grounding and salvage is a good sea story, complete with rum.  All of the crew survived the storm and grounding, but the official history mentions that “Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.” The entire crew was later commended for their “seamanship, courage and fortitude.”

But what I found most interesting was the salvage efforts.  Buried in the official history are some details that show that coral reef protection was not a concern in 1936.  For example, a pile driver was used to place a “cluster of piles driven on the reef,” and these pilings were “backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.”  Wire ropes were then used to try to bring the Fathomer upright and haul it off the reef, but those efforts were unsuccessful and ultimately the reef was dynamited and the loose coral was dredged, allowing the Fathomer to be towed to deeper water.

The removal of the USS Guardian is ongoing, but thankfully, it is clear, almost 80 years later, that coral reef protection will be very high on the list of priorities.

[1] The Fathomer worked in the Philippines from 1905-1941. After the 1936 typhoon, Fathomer resumed survey duties in the Philippine Islands. During World War II the ship was used in the defense of the Philippines and was lost in April 1942 when the American and Filipino defenders surrendered the Bataan Peninsula.

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With Tropical Storm Isaac’s Passing, Crews Resume Cutting Apart Grounded Ship and Protecting Coral at Mona Island, Puerto Rico

Response barges are anchored near the grounded M/V Jireh.

August 20, 2012 — Response barges are anchored near the M/V Jireh (foreground), which grounded on coral reefs in June. (U.S. Coast Guard/Jaclyn Young)

With the passage of the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Isaac, salvage crews and coral ecologists are once again back on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, working to remove the grounded freighter M/V Jireh while also protecting the island’s corals.

In previous ship salvage cases involving coral habitats, biologists have observed considerable coral damage from not only the physical placement of anchors, cables, and support vessels, but also continued shifting and grinding from the grounded vessel. As a result, crews are working carefully to keep that from happening here.

In such a long and complicated salvage project, it is impossible to prevent all impacts, but crews are continuing to remove and reattach corals at risk from the grounded ship. Nearly 1,000 corals have been moved already. These transplanted corals are expected to have a high survival rate and reduce the overall impacts from the vessel removal operation.

A NOAA-authorized biologist is on site during all coral relocation operations to make sure corals are properly handled and reattached to reefs. Before responders attempt to refloat the vessel, qualified divers will evaluate the corals in the area and determine an exit path for the damaged ship that will have the least impact to the surrounding coral habitat. This may or may not turn out to be the same path the ship took when it entered the reef. Depending on conditions after the vessel’s removal, the coral colonies may be relocated back to their original place on the reef.

The U.S. Coast Guard and the rest of the response crew have been working carefully to cut up portions of the ship, in order to lighten the vessel enough to refloat and remove it from the reef. Once disassembled, the removed portions of the ship are loaded onto a barge and taken to Puerto Rico for recycling.

Additionally, since the grounding on June 21, crews already have removed 600 tons of oiled cargo and more than 5,000 gallons of oil-water mixture.

Here you can see their plan for removing and disposing of this damaged vessel.

Jireh removal and disposal process.

Jireh removal and disposal process. (Jireh Grounding Unified Command)

Once the ship is refloated, the plan is to scuttle (purposefully sink) the wreck 12 miles away from Mona Island. After it is sunk, the wreckage is not expected to pose any additional risk to corals or other marine life. The difference with this shipwreck is the location.

“Intertidal wrecks are unstable and scour the reefs as they degrade and fall apart, while a wreck far out at sea becomes a stable deep-water habitat over time,” said Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration.

The Coast Guard reports that removing the Jireh from Mona Island is the best solution to protect the sensitive environment and coral reefs surrounding this highly valuable natural reserve. Once this threat is permanently removed, NOAA divers will conduct an assessment of the grounding area and continue to work with local environmental agencies to ensure its full recovery.

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Seeking Oil Aboard Shipwrecks and the Sunken S/S Montebello

Historic photo of Montebello taking off.

The S/S Montebello underway.

Early on the morning of December 23, 1941—barely two weeks after Pearl Harbor—a Japanese submarine sank the S/S Montebello, an American oil tanker, off the central California coast. Seventy years later, the wreck of the Montebello still rests 900 feet beneath the sea just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

It’s one of the shipwrecks we’ve been investigating to make sure the oil still on the ship hasn’t leaked into the surrounding environment. No significant oil releases have been known to occur since it sank, and investigations in 1945, 1996, 2003, and 2010 have found the hull and cargo tanks to be intact. So the question remains, does the ship still carry the more than 3 million gallons of crude oil it was carrying when it went down?

ROV launch from M/V Nanuq to explore S/S Montebello.

The M/V Nanuq prepares to launch the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to conduct an underwater assessment of the S/S Montebello six miles off the Central California coast Oct. 12, 2011. Credit: California Dept. of Fish and Game.

For two and a half years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have assisted the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response in evaluating the Montebello’s potential pollution threat.

Starting this month (Oct. 2011), NOAA will provide on-scene expertise in maritime history, biology, and scientific support to the Coast Guard as they assess the wreck’s condition with a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV), determine the ship’s corrosion status, the volume of oil still on board, and the oil’s physical and chemical properties. Once the evaluation is complete, the Coast Guard hopes to better understand the pollution threat posed by the Montebello and then determine what, if any, mitigation actions might be necessary.

Staff in the control room monitor ROV activities.

MORRO BAY, Calif. – Global Diving & Salvage remotely operated vehicle technicans navigate the ROV around the sunken World War II tanker S.S. Montebello, Oct. 12, 2011. The ROV completed the initial visual inspection of the Montebello and found no possible hazards that could impede the mission going further. (NOAA – Robert Schwemmer)

Although navigation safety has improved dramatically in recent years, ships still sink, and the past century of commerce and warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken vessels along the U.S. coast. Some of these wrecks pose environmental threats because of hazardous cargoes, munitions, or bunker fuel oils left on board.

Unless they posed an immediate pollution threat or impeded navigation, most of these wrecks were left alone and largely forgotten unless they began to leak. Recent incidents, however, have heightened concerns about the potential environmental hazard posed by shipwrecks. In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of S/S Jacob Luckenbach was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. My office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck.

I’ve been working to prioritize which shipwrecks in U.S. waters pose the greatest potential threat from oil on board (hopefully, before they leak). Where are these wrecks? What condition are they in? Are they intact? Did all the oil leak out when they first sank, or could they still hold oil like the Luckenbach?

Researching shipwrecks is fascinating. Every ship has a story and that story is partially revealed through the accounts of the survivors, old newspaper stories, insurance investigations, accident records, and cargo reports. Salvage reports and survey records from NOAA charts add to the picture, but these old documents provide incomplete clues. Sometimes these silent wrecks at the bottom of the sea end up keeping some secrets down there with them.