Billionaire Paul Allen has given millions of dollars to conservation causes over the years, including ones that support ocean exploration and preservation. But earlier this month, his 300-foot yacht Tatoosh allegedly caused significant damage to a protected coral reef in the Cayman Islands.
The anchor and chain of the vessel allegedly damaged 14,000 square feet of reef on January 14, according to Cayman Islands' Department of Environment. The incident occurred in a protected area of Grand Cayman called the West Bay replenishment zone, which is near popular scuba diving sites.
The M/V Tatoosh was "moored in a position explicitly directed by the local Port Authority," Paul Allen's Seattle-based company, Vulcan, says in a statement on its website. However, the winds reportedly shifted, moving the boat toward the reef.
"When its crew was alerted by a diver that her anchor chain may have impacted coral in the area, the crew promptly, and on their own accord, relocated their position to ensure the reef was protected," Vulcan says (company spokespeople have declined to speak with us beyond the statement).
Allen was not on board the 300-foot yacht (his second biggest), which has five decks and is staffed by a crew of 30. (It is reportedly the 49th largest yacht in the world.) Vulcan says the company is working with local authorities to determine what happened and to help restore the damage.
The incident was relatively unusual, since Grand Cayman is a popular boating destination and clear guidelines usually keep people from damaging the reef, says Carrie Manfrino, a coral ecologist who founded the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, which operates a field station in the Cayman Islands.
"We've come a long way from the day when anchors could just be thrown in the water anywhere," says Manfrino.
Michael P. Lesser, a marine scientist at the University of New Hampshire who has worked in the Caymans, agrees, although he says ship anchors and groundings "continue to be a source of damage to coral reefs around the world." Guidelines on best practices have come a long way, but more work needs to be done, says Lesser, who is a National Geographic explorer.
"I know Paul Allen funds great projects on coral reefs and regeneration, so this is really ironic and a terrible thing," says Manfrino.
The Health of the Reef
Although boat impacts are hardly the most important threats to corals, it's still important to prevent them, since corals are already stressed out around the world, Manfrino adds. The most severe threats include pollution, overfishing, acidification, and global warming, all of which can contribute to coral death, and bleaching.
"Bleaching is a much bigger threat than Paul Allen's boat," says Manfrino.
Cayman reefs have actually been faring better than many others around the world over the past couple of years. They are among the most biodiverse of all reefs in the Caribbean and they have shown some resistance to bleaching.
As far as the Tatoosh incident, "early findings already indicate extensive damage," a spokesman from the Cayman Islands' Department of Environment told the Cayman News Service.
It's not yet clear how restoration might proceed, but Manfrino says it's possible to transplant baby corals to jumpstart the process. Corals are already being replanted on a large scale in Florida.
More research is needed on how corals are responding to a changing world, says Manfrino, who adds that she is "very worried for their future."