Rescued divers returned safely to Honolulu after chartered marine debris cleanup vessel Casitas grounded at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Monday morning, July 11, 2005

Sixteen rescued divers and scientists from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center arrived safely back in Honolulu early last Wednesday morning after the chartered marine debris cleanup vessel Casitas, on which they were working, ran aground at remote Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. It was a harrowing situation they faced, and they faced it well. Nobody was injured in the grounding incident or the rescue. The U.S. Coast Guard is leading a multi-agency response team working to remove the Casitas from the atoll and minimize its impacts on the coral reef ecosystem. Lightering (removal) of the fuel from the grounded vessel began on Saturday, July 10, and continued through Sunday, according to the Coast Guard.

The vessel ran hard aground near North Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, about 90 miles from Midway Island, around midnight on Friday, July 1st. The reason for the grounding is unknown, and the Coast Guard is conducting its usual investigation for this type of incident.

The motor vessel (M/V) Casitas was chartered by NOAA and its Coral Reef Conservation Program to conduct an important marine debris clean-up project at various locations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during the summer. The project was managed by the PIFSC's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division and designed to census, document, and remove marine debris that had accumulated in shallow water coral reef environments, using small inflatable boats (called Avons) and NOAA-trained divers deployed from the Casitas. The Casitas had departed from Honolulu on June 8th expecting to be at sea 120 days. This was the second year the Casitas was contracted by NOAA for such work, and the ninth year that NOAA has conducted marine debris clean-ups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Over 100 metric tons of debris, much of it nets lost or discarded at sea months, if not years, ago in North Pacific fisheries far away from Hawaii have been collected annually by these clean-up missions. Marine debris is a significant environmental risk to the coral reef habitat and to the protected species of the region.

Evacuation from the grounded vessel was initiated by the divers before daybreak on Saturday using the Avons. The marine debris team shuttled to North Island (roughly 4 miles from the grounding location) throughout the day on Saturday. They then made contact with the PIFSC monk seal field camp at the southeast end of Pearl and Hermes Atoll where they were picked up by the NOAA Ship OSCAR ELTON SETTE just before sunset on Sunday and transported to Midway Island. Good weather conditions facilitated the rescue. After spending the night at Midway, the divers and other Casitas personnel were returned to Honolulu on a Coast Guard C-130.

There is potential for adverse environmental impacts from the grounding, particularly if the vessel leaks a significant amount of fuel or breaks up on the reef. The Coast Guard, NOAA, and other agencies in the incident response team are cooperating in an effort to minimize such impacts.

There are many people to thank for a successful rescue of personnel from the Casitas, beginning with the divers themselves. They used their heads, training, and experience to successfully initiate their own rescue. PIFSC staff at the monk seal field camp provided a critical communications link. The captain and crew of the SETTE played a key role in minimizing the exposure to the rescued personnel. The PIFSC is greatly appreciative of the Fish and Wildlife Service at Midway for hosting the unexpected visitors, and to the Coast Guard for professional support throughout the long night and day of the rescue. Finally, we've received steady support from PIFSC staff, others up the chain in NMFS, and our multi-agency partners throughout Hawaii.

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