SYDNEY — A Chinese coal carrier rocked back and forth over a section of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef after running aground, inflicting a gash 2 miles long into a shoal that will take 20 years to heal. A leading marine scientist called it the worst damage he’s ever seen to the world’s largest coral reef.
The Shen Neng 1 veered into protected waters and ran aground on Douglas Shoal on April 3, leaking 2-3 tons of fuel when coral shredded its hull.
The 755-foot ship was successfully lifted off the reef Monday after crews spent three days pumping fuel to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an area near Great Keppel Island, 40 nautical miles away. Its refloating left a scar 1.9 miles long and up to 820 feet wide.
“There is more damage to this reef than I have ever seen in any previous Great Barrier Reef groundings,” scientist David Wachenfeld told reporters Tuesday.
The oil that first leaked from the hull was quickly dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage. Small amounts of oil, however, have begun washing up on beaches near where the ship ran aground, according to Maritime Safety Queensland.
The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species. The accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.
The reef was hit particularly badly because the vessel did not stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said. Instead, tides and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.
In some areas, “all marine life has been completely flattened and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of the vessel,” Wachenfeld said, speaking of the fragile coral and the plants and fish that may have inhabited the area.