On Tuesday, January 13, the cargo ship Westerhaven, went aground on our Barrier Reef and has been described as one of the worst ever to our reefs, the longest living in the world. The vessel lay atop the Barrier Reef near Caye Glory, 32 miles from Belize City for about a week before it could be properly removed.
The ship left Belize City en route to Santo Tomas, Guatemala, after 8:00 p.m on Tuesday, January 13, after dropping off a few containers and the damage to the reef is considerable. According to Ports Commissioner Major Lloyd Jones, on Tuesday, January 13 around 10:00 p.m. the pilot disembarked at English Caye and then the Ship Master plotted a course on a heading of 170 degrees. The autopilot was then engaged and about 30 minutes later the ship ran aground onto the reef and that is the source of controversy. The course heading 170 degrees should have taken the ship at least 1.1 or 1.2 miles away from the reef, but instead it went aground on our precious Barrier Reef.
“The boat went parallel to the reef crust and just pushed the slope of the reef which is where we had these nice spur and grove formations; hills of coral and valleys of sand,” commented Melanie McField, Marine Scientist.
“The boat, just as it got shallower, scraped up the slope and flattened everything. So the whole reef, the structure; everything, not just individual coral heads, the whole structure is pulverized. It looks like a steam roller ran over it. It’s really amazing; it’s the size of a football field and maybe wider. So it’s a large area that’s completely flattened.”
Ports Commissioner Lloyd Jones stated that his team, along with the Department of the Environment and the Fisheries Department, have been at the site. However, the official inquiry as mandated by the Harbors and Merchant Shipping Act will take place once the vessel is removed from the reef. Two salvage experts were brought in from the U.S. to assess the situation.
And while varying figures on damages have been thrown around, the Ports Commissioner has confirmed that the Port will be suing the ship owners for 15 million US dollars, for damages caused to the reefs due to negligence of the operators of the Westerhaven., which the Ports Authority is currently filing for damages in the courts.
And on Monday, January 19, a U.S. based team with tugboats dislodged the Westerhaven from the reef. The vessel was placed under anchorage along with its cargo. The suit brought against the Westerhaven was filed on behalf of the Attorney General, which means that any monies recovered will go back into the government treasury and not necessarily towards any environmental initiative to protect the reef.
Major Jones believes that the ship owners will move to deal with the matter swiftly since the cargo is also held in custody. The Westerhaven has been docked in anchorage about four miles from the port, where it will sit until the dispute has been settled.
And if the name of the cargo ship sounds familiar that’s because it has been in the news before. On October 2008, hazardous material from a barrel in a container consigned to Belize Natural Energy was leaking. That situation was contained and there were no damages to Belizean waters.