The 68-meter-long USS Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef on January 17, was spun around 90 degrees by the current, possibly causing more damage to the protected sanctuary. (Photo from AFP Western Command)
The 68-meter-long USS Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef on January 17, was spun around 90 degrees by the current, possibly causing more damage to the protected sanctuary. (Photo from AFP Western Command)

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – An aerial surveys conducted by the U.S Navy P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft informed there was no oil spill in Tubbataha reef as the U.S minesweeper indicated no fuel leaks or additional flooding since its grounding last January 17.

A Navy official today said that while the ship’s condition remains stable, it was continuously being battered by the bad weather and strong waves, particularly on the port side.

The U.S government through Admiral Thomas Carney, commander of the U.S. Navy Fleet based in Singapore and three other Navy ships was expected to arrive in the area today to start their salvage operation.

The Vos Apollo, an anchor-handling ship from Singapore, is expected to arrive at Puerto Princesa, Palawan today (January 21) to unload oil recovery equipment for the salvage operation, a Navy official said.

Other U.S. Navy teams are gathering at Puerto Princesa to assist the operation, including a Seabee detachment, technicians from the Southwest Regional Maintenance Center, and a Navy marine chemist.

The Pearl Harbor-based salvage ship Salvor is also en route to the Philippines to help but is it uncertain yet when it will arrive in the area scene until late next week.

The Philippine Oil Spill Response Team and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) salvage team equipped with environmental container booms has been readied but has been unable to deploy them because of the bad weather.

Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coastal Guard (PCG) told newsmen that the team find it hard to start the operation because of the strong waves that batters the ship.

Weather forecasts for the region today in the area are for 15-to-20-knot winds and four-to-six-foot seas. Conditions are expected to improve on January 22, and the booms will be deployed when the weather permits, the Navy said.

The Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), on the other hand, is up to this writing undecided if they will appropriate charges against the US fleet.

US Navy official regrets Tubbataha damage

The US Guardian grounding in PH coral reefs, which is in a Unesco World Heritage zone where entry is restricted, worries Philippine government. Filipinos especially environmentalists portrays the grounding as an environmental issue, rather than a maritime accident.

U.S. Seventh Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Scott Swift assured the Philippines that there was no fuel leaks have been reported from the ship as of Sunday evening (Manila time).

“As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift in a statement issued today.

“We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment.”

“When the Guardian is safely recovered by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. government will continue to work with the Republic of Philippines government to assess the extent of the damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding. The Republic of the Philippines government was promptly informed of the incident and is being updated regularly by U.S. officials,” declared by the US Seventh Fleet statement.

All U.S. ships cautioned

The January 17 (Manila time) grounding of U.S Guardian at the Tubbataha reef prompted the US government to advise all its ship to “operate with caution” when using a digital or electronic charts.

It was learned that the stranded ship used a digital chart in navigating Philippines which apparently misplaced the location of a reef by about eight nautical miles, and may have been the big factor when the ship drove into the reef around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17.

The reef is about 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan Island in the western portion of the Philippine archipelago. The entire 79 sailors were taken off the ship unhurt.

The ship was at Olongapo City in Subic Bay, and was en route to Indonesia when she struck the reef, according to the Navy. The Guardian which entered service between 1987 and 1994 is home-ported at Sasebo, Japan.

Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, commander of the ship, who first reported to the ship only on October 2011, said the 14-ship minesweeper fleet generally toils in obscurity become the focus of major refurbishment and modernization efforts with the delay of planned replacements, renewed concerns about anti-mine capabilities, and a surge deployment to the Persian Gulf.

Guardian is one of four ships forward-deployed to Japan and is assigned to Mine Countermeasures Squadron 7. Four other mine countermeasures ships are home ported at Bahrain, where four San Diego-based ships also are operating. Two others remain at San Diego, home base for the mine force.

Human error eyed as cause of grounding?

There are reports that sailors committed some mistakes in reading the electronic charts of the ship. They never compared the electronic charts to hard copy which is considered a “standard operating procedures” in navigating the ship.

A memo issued by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), a largely secret organization headquartered in Springfield,Va., said the ship, and most Navy ships,  uses Digital Nautical Charts (DNC).

The DNC charts come in several versions. “General” and “coastal” versions are used in open areas such as the Sulu Sea, and “approach” and “harbor” versions are used for operating in and around harbors.

The general DNC and hardcopy charts show the reef’s location correctly, NGA said.

Rear Adm. Jonathan White, Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy, said in the message that preliminary analysis of the error indicates it “resulted from incorrect geographic rectification of satellite imagery used to build” the coastal DNC charts.

“NGA has found no other anomalies, but is currently conducting a comprehensive review of its source data,” White said in the message.

He cautioned Navy ships “to compare coastal DNC charts with general DNC library charts, and not rely on [a] single source for navigation data.

“Commanding officers,” White added, “are directed to report any anomalies immediately to NGA.” The agency expects to complete its review of all coastal DNC charts by Jan. 22, White noted.

A Navy official cautioned that while the digital chart error may have contributed to the incident, an accident investigation is continuing.

“This guidance to the fleet does not presuppose the cause of the USS Guardian grounding,” the official said Jan. 18. “The investigation will look at a number of potential contributing factors.”