US Navy to probe faulty charts in Tubbataha

Preliminary findings indicate that 'inaccurate navigation data' may have been a factor in the crash

STUCK ON THE REEF. Photo of the USS Guardian stuck at the Tubbataha North Atoll taken from a Nomad plane from the Philippine Air Force on 17 January courtesy of AFP WESCOM

MANILA, Philippines – The US Navy will determine if it was faulty navigational charts that caused the USS Guardian to veer off its course.

The Navy’s own investigation team will “assess the circumstances surrounding” the grounding of one of its ships inside the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park marine protected area on Thursday, January 17.

The probe “will include information on faulty navigation chart data that misplaced the location of Tubbataha Reef,” a statement from the US Pacific Fleet said on Saturday, January 19.

The statement added that the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had provided “preliminary findings of a review on Digital Nautical Charts (DNC) that contain inaccurate navigation data and may have been a factor” in the crash.

US Navy chief navigator Rear Adm Jonathan White confirmed that DNC mapping was used by the USS Guardian and “initial review of navigation data indicates an error in the location of Tubbataha Reef” on the digital map.

“While the erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions. It is critical that the US Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts surrounding the Guardian grounding,” said US Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt Darryn James.

(Read: A sad day for a scuba diver)

PARK RANGERS. Angelique Songco (center) with her staff at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Photo courtesy of Angelique Songco

Rangers finally aproach stuck ship

Also on Saturday, Park rangers were finally able to approach the USS Guardian for the first time since the American minesweeper ran aground in Tubbataha on Thursday, a park official said.

“[The] coordination has improved a lot,” chief supervisor Angelique Songco told Rappler after the US Navy had ignored her staff for two consecutive days.

Songco explained that park rangers approached the stuck ship assisted by a marine environmental protection vessel sent by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

PCG commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena ordered on Friday the deployment of the BRP Corregidor to carry personnel from the the Marine Environmental Protection Command, as well as rescue and medical teams from the Special Operations Group (CGSOG) to first help evacuate the 80 US servicemen on board the USS Guardian and then begin assessing the damage to the coral.

The Philippine Navy control craft BRP Ismael Lomibao is also set to arrive in the area to bring CGSOG divers who will take part in the search and rescue operations.

Songco said the US Navy allowed her staff and the Coast Guard to approach the USS Guardian, but civilians have yet to be allowed on the American ship.

 PRISTINE REEFS. The coral reefs of Tubbataha are healthy and free from parasites such as the nasty crown-of-thorns starfish that eats polyps, the live organisms that make up the coral. Photo by Lory Tan/WWF

Gov’t agencies to probe incident

The park management lodged on Friday a formal protest with the US embassy in Manila over the behavior of the commanding officer of the minesweeper. According to Songco, he deployed armed soldiers on deck to discourage the rangers from approaching the ship.

The extent of the damage could not be immediately determined, but the World Wildlife Fund suggested on Thursday that at least 10 meters of the minesweeper’s hull had ran aground into the reef.

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.

Tubbataha – a multi-awarded conservation project and one of the world’s best dive sites – is a 97,030-hectare World Heritage Site with two main atolls home to a huge variety of marine life species, including large pelagics such as manta rays and sharks, as well as pristine coral.

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