Tubbataha salvor operations to await 2nd crane ship’s arrival as waves foil work on Guardian

MANILA, Philippines – Underscoring the technical difficulties that experts warned would come with such a complicated salvor operation, efforts by the crew of a US crane ship to start taking out piece by piece a US navy minesweeper aground on Tubbataha Reef were foiled by strong waves, and failed to start as scheduled on Sunday.

As a result, official decided to await the arrival of the second, bigger crane ship on February 15, to remove portions of the USS Guardian (MCM5), which remains stuck in, and continues to do damage to, the UNESCO-tagged marine sanctuary on Sulu Sea in Palawan.

“The Smith Borneo has failed to anchor due to strong waves. They tried to lower the four anchors but only one had a good bite on the seabed, so they did not push through. They’re assessing the situation and thinking of just wait for the arrival of the bigger salvage crane ship, the Jacson 25 which has a more dynamic positioning system,” Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista, commander of the Philippine Coast Guard Palawan district, said.

He said the Jacson 25 can “hold position without anchoring”. The ship sailed Saturday afternoon from Singapore and is expected to arrive on February 15 at around 9 p.m. It will directly proceed to the Tubbataha Reef.

“For the meantime, Smith Borneo stops its operation including cutting parts of the Guardian while it waits for the arrival of Jacson 25. As soon as Jacson25 arrives, there will be a briefing and then operations begin,” Evangelista said.

He said the damage on the reef remains at more than 4,000 square meters.

Evangelista said taking down the Guardian piece by piece could last until the first week of April.

“You know, we all have to be very careful in this operation. This isn’t something that can be rushed. The upright position of the boat must be maintained always; and at the same time, one must consider the sea condition; the sea keeps moving while they’re working. Inside the boat, there are pipes that must be removed or taken apart before a particular section may be lifted, in order to lessen the debris that could fall into the sea and damage the reef further,” he explained, speaking in Filipino.

The minesweeper of the US 7th Fleet ran aground on the reef on January 17. Philippine maritime authorities had warned the captain not to sail on prohibited maritime area in the country but the order was defied. The US Navy then rescued and whisked off the ship’s officials and crew to its military base in Saebo, Japan, a move that was criticized as violative of usual procedures for documenting incidents like this, and apparently meant to avoid legal responsibility for the culprits.

The US government has promised to pay for damages its ship caused to the reef, but remained silent on why its sailors violated Philippine maritime laws and even a provision of the UNESCO on World Heritage Sites.

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