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In Search of a Silver Lining

The community reacts to the White Cloud tragedy at Northwest Point.

By Richard Green

On the morning of April Fool’s Day 2013, Art Pickering approached the pristine reefs off the western end of Providenciales and couldn’t believe his eyes. Anchored between the popular Amphitheatre and Chimney dive sites was the 200+ foot megayacht White Cloud, more than two kilometres north of the designated anchorage for vessels longer than 60 feet. Pickering, the Turks & Caicos Islands’ scuba icon and founder of Provo Turtle Divers, told the captain that the vessel should not be there. He also called the government’s Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs (DEMA) to report the situation.

Meanwhile, dive operators Stephanie Wallwork, Nigel Suffolk, Geron Russell, O’Daine Campbell and Alexander (“Roddy”) McLeod from Provo Turtle Divers, Beaches Resort and Dive Provo photographed the damage White Cloud’s massive anchor chain was doing below.

The White Cloud is a 220 ft. megayacht.

The chain swept back and forth across the reef crest and wall with the movement of the yacht, uprooting more than 10,000 hard and soft corals and sponges. Invaluable habitat and the complex web of marine life were also disrupted or destroyed.

While legal matters are drawn out and are still pending at press time, something had to be done quickly to stabilize as many corals as possible to prevent suffocation by sand and sediment so they could be transplanted and hopefully saved.

The reef system is much more than an internationally famous playground for divers. Its ecological benefits are essential to the country’s fisheries but also contribute to sand resources and aid in structural protection from storm damages and to maintain water clarity. All of this is critical to the country’s tourism-based economy.

With government departments operating on meager funding during difficult economic times, the disaster stretched DEMA’s resources beyond capacity. Thankfully, the community responded unselfishly to DEMA’s appeal for assistance.

Provo Turtle Divers and Caicos Adventures provided dive equipment and tanks for all the preliminary studies on the damaged reef, while long-term resident and Dive Master Judy Dirckx assisted expert James Harold Hudson throughout his damage assessment.

The beauty of a healthy coral reef is irreplaceable.

Funded by an emergency stipend approved by Cabinet, long-term resident and marine ecologist Marsha Pardee’s Provo-based company MerAngel Ecological Services spearheaded the rescue operation. The team of local volunteers included Don Stark, Suzanne Levay, Ted Levay, Jackie Walker, David Stone, Lizzie Baldwin, David Goring, Brent Forbes, Matt Slattery, Tina Randell, Camille Slattery, Mike Casanova, Dominique Weilermann, Frank Gerstner and Violette Moser. Boat support was provided by Big Blue Unlimited and Ocean Ventures.

Both government and the boat’s owner provided further funding, enabling MerAngel to reattach more than 500 corals in the damage area between June and August. Much more work will be required to restore the damaged reef, and government is currently working towards an agreement with the ship’s insurer to come to an amicable settlement that will provide funding to continue to save as many corals as possible.

DEMA says the coral injury is among the most catastrophic in TCI history, affecting an estimated area of more than 5,000 square metres. “It will take at least 50 years and extensive restoration works for the reef to recover its previous ecological value,” said DEMA Director Kathleen Wood. “We have a long road ahead of us, but the community response, for which DEMA is immeasurably grateful, has been the silver lining in this tragedy. When the restoration work is completed, the injury area will be forever memorialized as the TCI’s community reef, for indeed, it will have been the community that put it back together again, piece by piece.”

Since the damage occurred, DEMA has met with the non-profit Turks and Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF) and private sector stakeholders to discuss ways to prevent future damages. DEMA has partnered with TCRF and local entrepreneurs to install large vessel moorings at North West Point, Grace Bay, Pine Cay, South Caicos and other locations across the country so that increasing megayacht traffic will have more places to anchor safely.

Richard Green is a research assistant for MerAngel Ecological Services.

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