GEORGE TOWN, Grand Cayman, Wednesday December 16, 2015 – Cayman Islands Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell has confirmed that the Department of Environment and Cayman Islands Port Authority had launched an investigation into the destruction of a stretch of coral reef by a cruise ship off the coast of Grand Cayman.
While Cayman officials maintain that the Zenith ship anchored in a legal position off George Town, a local diver has posted a video of the ship’s anchor and its chain “scouring across the reef”, breaking off chunks of coral and kicking up dust and silt.
Diving instructor Scott Prodahl told Cayman 27 that the reality of the damage was worse than that shown in his video.
“In the video you only see a very small portion of that chain tumbling, but in reality it’s the entire length of it tumbling and scouring across the reef,” he said.
When posting the video, which has now chalked-up more than 350,000 views on Youtube, Prodahl commented: “Another sad day for the reefs of Grand Cayman. We are not allowed to fish here, not allowed to hunt lobsters, you can’t even pick up an empty shell, all in the name of conservation. But for some reason you can drop an anchor and wipe out a reef that took thousands of years to grow.”
The damage is close to the site where a cruise ship caused similar damage to a large stretch of reef in August 2014, according to the Cayman Reporter.
Cayman officials have nevertheless said that the Zenith, a 12-deck vessel with the capacity for more than 1,800 passengers and 600 crew and owned by Madrid-based Pullmantur Cruises, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, was in a designated anchorage zone.
“The ship’s captain and the harbour pilot both acted in accordance with established procedure so there was no sign of negligence,” Scott Slaybaugh, deputy director of operations and enforcement at the department of environment, told the Cayman Reporter.
“The graphic attached shows the vessel was properly anchored well inside of the anchorage area.”
He nevertheless conceded that from the video the damage to the reef appeared “significant,” and the department of environment will conduct tests of the water to assess just how much damage has been done.
According to a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Cruises: “When Pullmantur Zenith arrived to Grand Cayman on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, they were directed to a designated anchorage position. The spot where the ship dropped anchor was correct, located in the zone designated by the government for anchorage, and was not in any protected areas.
“This is a very unfortunate situation and we will work closely with Grand Cayman authorities to ensure this does not happen again.
“Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd understands the importance of protecting the marine environment and sustaining the well-being of the places we visit. Protecting the health and welfare of our oceans is always foremost in our minds,’’ he added.
As the Huffington Post points out, however, the Cayman Islands’ Marine Conservation Laws, seen on the islands’ tourism website, state that “damaging coral by anchor, chains or any other means anywhere in Cayman waters is prohibited.”
According to American maritime lawyer Jim Walker: “This is clearly a case where the cruise line, the pilot agency and the Cayman’s Department of the Environment should all be held accountable.”
In a hard-hitting commentary in Cruise Law News, Walker wrote: “The cruise industry should be embarrassed after YouTube videos are now showing the destruction of a coral reef in the Cayman Islands by an anchor and chain dropped by the Pullmantur Zenith cruise ship (an old ship last operated by Celebrity Cruises), owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises.
“Coral reefs and cruise lines, it seems, are as incongruous as cats and dogs. Just ask the formerly quaint little port of Falmouth, Jamaica where the port was dredged for Royal Caribbean’s monster ships, the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas to squeeze in. This required the destruction of some 35,000,000 cubic feet of coral reef and the annihilation of two square miles of mangroves which are now buried under pulverized reef material.
“Last year, a Carnival cruise ship (the Magic) crushed a coral reef in the Caymans after a local pilot boat operated by Bodden Shipping Agency guided the Carnival cruise ship to anchor outside of the designated public port anchorage.
“The Cayman Reporter described the situation as involving an ‘anchor on the reef rolling over the coral sending plumes of dust and broken coral in its wake.’ But the governing authority is the weak Department of the Environment of the Cayman Islands which did not even bother to hold anyone responsible for last year’s massive damage to the coral reef by the dropping of the Carnival anchor.
“The agency has already exonerated the Zenith cruise operator and the harbour pilot from negligence. Royal Caribbean then immediately took advantage of this free pass to defend itself from criticism on Twitter, tweeting: ‘When Pullmantur Zenith arrived in Grand Cayman it was directed to a government-designated anchorage spot, not in a protected area.’
“The fact of the matter is that live coral was directly under the Zenith cruise ship which made no efforts to verify the underwater conditions.”
Pulling no punches, Walker added: “The ultimate irony, of course, is that protecting the Cayman’s beautiful reefs may well be a moot point. The country has decided to cater to the cruise industry’s goals of building a large dock, so that cruise ships no longer have to tender passengers ashore, which will sit over the reefs. This will require extensive dredge and fill operations which will destroy large portions of the island’s ancient coral reefs.
“Such is the result of a short-sighted, docile, tourism-dependent Caribbean nation trying to please its Miami coral-reef-destroying cruise line masters.”