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MANILA, Philippines (2nd UPDATE) - The US Navy apologized on Sunday, January 20, for the grounding of one of its ships inside the protected area of Tubbataha Reef Natural Park in the Sulu Sea.
"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef," said US Pacific Fleet commander Vice Admiral Scott Swift said in a statement.
Scott added that the US Navy acknowledges the "significance" of Tubbataha and its importance as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
"Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment," the American commander said.
The US Navy confirmed that the situation of the USS Guardian has not changed: the minesweeper is still stuck on the reef -- now with no crew members on board -- and no traces of an oil spill in the area have been detected.
Recovery efforts will start once the sea conditions improve and evacuated crew members can go back to the vessel.
US admiral to take over recovery operation
Swift announced that Rear Admiral Thomas Carney, Logistics Group commander for the Western Pacific, will travel on Monday, January 21, to the Philippines to take over as officer in charge of the ongoing operation to extricate the ship from the reef.
Carney will sail to the Sulu Sea on board the USS Mustin destroyer along side several US Navy support vessels to oversee the efforts to pull out the USS Guardian "preventing any further environmental damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment."
Once the USS Guardian is safely recovered, the statement said, the US government "will continue to work with the [government of the] Republic of Philippines 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 US officials," the US Navy added.
Ship turns around, damages more coral
Prior to the US Navy's statement, the Philippine military said on Sunday that the USS Guardian had turned around due to the strong currents and winds, damaging more coral.
About 17 meters of the US Navy minesweeper's hull are now aground, 7 m more than before, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command chief Lt Gen Juancho Sabban.
Sabban told Rappler that the coral damage will be "more than the original estimate" and explained it was the rough sea and strong winds that caused the ship to turn 90 degrees.
"With the assistance of the Americans, we are now looking at ways to pull [the vessel] out," added the AFP commander.
A number of boats – among them another US Navy minesweeper and American salvage tugboats – have been sent to the area to help extricate the ship stuck since Thursday, January 17.
"This is going to continue for a few days. It is a very difficult operation and the forecast is that the weather will not improve soon," Sabban said.
'Sea too rough'
Four days after the USS Guardian crashed onto the reef, American officers are now closely coordinating with park rangers and personnel from the Philippine Coast Guard dispatched to the area.
Park chief supervisor Angelique Songco said the US Navy is ready to kick off the operation to extricate the boat "but the sea is too rough to do anything at the moment."
"We are biting our nails waiting," she told Rappler on Sunday.
Songco added that the Americans are much more cooperative now and have established a joint command center with the Philippine Navy in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the closest port to Tubbataha.
The park management on Friday, January 18, filed a formal protest with the US Embassy in Manila over the behavior of the USS Guardian's commanding officer, who – according to Songco – initially deployed armed sailors on deck to prevent the rangers from approaching the minesweeper stuck inside the area under their jurisdiction.
Most of the crew have been transferred to another ship and only 7 sailors, among them the commanding officer and an executive officer, remain on board, the US Pacific Fleet said on Friday.
Faulty charts, gov't probe
The US Navy on Saturday, January 19, announced it will send its own team to investigate if it was faulty navigational charts that caused the USS Guardian to veer off its course.
The probe "will include information on faulty navigation chart data that misplaced the location of Tubbataha Reef," the US Pacific Fleet explained in a statement.
"Initial review of navigation data indicates an error in the location of Tubbataha Reef" on the digital map, said US Navy chief navigator Rear Admiral Jonathan White.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte announced on Saturday that various government agencies will be conducting their own investigation on what happened.
The US Navy may be charged with violating sections 19 and 26 of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Act of 2009.
It can also expect to pay P12,000 per sqm of damaged coral inside the multi-awarded conservation project and one of the world's best dive sites. – Rappler.com