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Wreck on the Rhone

Wrecking on the Rhone

A little over a month ago, experienced diver and established underwater photographer Armando Jenik walked into aLookingGlass’ office sporting a wide grin. He had just returned from a dive and photoshoot at the Wreck of the RMS Rhone—a site he has experienced on more than 5,000 dives over the past four decades. But never like this.

At the time, a Tropical container ship more than 400 feet long had cast a long shadow on the famous wreck, the imposing vessel left wedged aground off the western shore of Salt Island. The 756-acre dive site had been temporarily closed to the public while officials attempted to remove the massive ship and document its damage. Enter Armando. Over the next few days, the pro photographer assisted and observed government officials assess and carefully remove the vessel from the delicate and protected reef system. On his final dives, Armando’s photos show the worst of the damage: A relatively small portion of pulverized granite rock and some damage to surrounding fire coral.


“Overall, it was lucky—beyond lucky,” said marine biologist Shannon Gore, who led assessment efforts for the Conservation and Fisheries Department. “[The ship] missed every single mooring ball—no clue how it did that—and basically [Salt] Island stopped it.”

If the container ship ventured even a slightly different route, Gore said devastation would have been eminent.

“Had he hit somewhere, like Blonde Rock, that would’ve been extraordinary damage, not only to the ship but to the environment, because that [reef] would’ve ripped a hole in [the ship] and possibly capsized it,” she hypothesized.

As of press time, the CFD had been working with BVI National Parks Trust and the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry to compile reports to assess the damage from the private Tropical container ship. After mitigation, NPT and VISR will then decide whether, under BVI law, the Tropical vessel and its owner are responsible for paying fines for damaging the national park and protected dive site.


Relieving the Rhone
This month, the Wreck of the RMS Rhone turns 144, commemorating decades as one of the Caribbean’s most sought after dive sites. On October 29, 1867, the British packet ship was struck by a devastating hurricane off the shore of Salt Island. The vessel capsized, resulting in the loss of at least 123 lives. Since 1967, the Rhone and her surrounding 756 acres of lush underwater reefs and sea gardens have been designated a national park, meaning they fall under the jurisdiction of government protection and laws and regulations that follow. That means “Legislation currently in place allows for the protection of the resources, and provisions in that law allow for us to recover any damages the marine park has sustained,” explained NPT Director Joseph Smith Abbott. “[The container ship] did spare the historical wreck, but it did damage some coral and some boulders when it grounded.”


When Tropic Sun ran aground on August 29, NPT was quick to issue a closing notice and cautioned the public of the troublesome anomaly. In the meantime, government agencies worked to assess the area for damage and to devise a plan to remove the vessel from Salt Island’s Lee Bay. US salvage company Resolve Marine Services, along with BVI’s Husky Salvage, worked to safely remove the wedged vessel from the compromised national park. Husky’s Kevin Rowlette explained that the task would call upon two large tugs from Puerto Rico and his smaller, harbour tug. First, pressurized tanks were used to gain buoyancy on the bottom of the ship’s bow and water was pumped from the ship to lighten the weight on the front of the ship. Then, in high tide, the tugs used their heavy force to lift and pull the massive cargo ship from its resting place. The ship was then transported to a spot outside Beef Island.

Regulating our Reefs
By first reports, it seems like the famed dive site—the draw of thousands of tourists and home to ample marine life—remains relatively unharmed.

“It’s far enough from the wreck, and I don’t think it’s an area that most people would go anyway, unless you’re that person that likes to snorkel by the shore,” Gore said of her examination. However, she added, this shouldn’t mean that situations like this should go unnoticed—and unaddressed—no matter how large or small the incident impacts the BVI’s reefs. “You hear about a lot of groundings [in the BVI], but not much is done about it. In the USVI, you’ve got the equivalent of ambulance chasers, because it’s like an easy million dollars in damages done to these reefs. … You’ve got the cost of cleanup, cost of losses and all sorts of variables go into play. It just seems the BVI hasn’t gotten close to that point yet.”

Capt Baboucar Sallah, director of the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry, explained that in the BVI, where resources are limited, legal cases of large magnitude are usually the ones that get noticed and investigated, while small and isolated incidents often go unnoticed.

“If it’s an incident worthy of investigation, we will investigate,” he simply stated, defining worthiness in terms of potential for danger and environmental impact. “When you have an incident, my mind is on doing something about it, rather than finding out who is right or wrong.”

Last year, Capt Sallah said, “about two or three” incidents were investigated under the Shipping Registry.


“We’re glad we were able to get the ship off in record time, and that the owners cooperated with us,” the VISR director said of the Tropic Sun situation. Asked what sort of implementation the most recent incident will have on legislation or enforcement issues, the captain answered, “We’ll have to see what our investigation says.”

For the time being, the famous wreckage remains undamaged, its surrounding reef system alive and well. But in the wake of an incident that compromised its security, its important to remember just how delicate our islands’ marine life is.

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