Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Palmyra Shipwreck Removal


Overall, almost a million pounds of steel and other shipwreck debris were removed from three wrecks in Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef, south of the Hawaiian Islands. Photo courtesy of Curtin Maritime.

Even under the best of circumstances, shipwreck removal projects can be difficult undertakings, since there are all kinds of logistics issues that need to be dealt with.

But when you add in other elements, including a remote location and need for environmental protection, the difficulty level can increase significantly, perhaps to the point where it could seem like an impossible mission.

But over the course of a few months in late 2013 and early 2014, two companies managed to achieve the near impossible while working on a project about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii for the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Seattle-based Global Diving & Salvage, along with Long Beach-based Curtin Maritime, put together a 16-person project team that managed to complete a shipwreck removal project that raised nearly a million pounds of steel material from the Pacific Ocean, but also managed to do it without causing any additional damage to the surrounding marine environment.

Global Diving and Curtin Maritime’s journey began in early 2013, when Global approached Curtin regarding teaming up to create a plan for a shipwreck removal project put out to bid by Fish & Wildlife at the remote locations of Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef, south of the Hawaiian Islands.

The project was part of a study and restoration effort by the US government to remove existing shipwrecks from coral reefs and restore the local ecosystem’s natural state.

After a very brief site visit and coming up with an initial plan that led to them being awarded the contract, Curtin and Global worked together with Fish & Wildlife over the course of about 10 months to craft an elaborate proposal for removal of three shipwrecks.

Making the planning difficult was that the work area was not only one of the more remote places on Earth, it’s also home to some of the most diverse marine life on the planet.

Partly due to their isolation, Palmyra and Kingman have traditionally experienced few manmade impacts. Palmyra consists of a circular string of about 50 islets nestled among lagoons and surrounded by about 15,000 acres of reefs. Kingman, about 35 miles northwest of Palmyra, is a non-vegetated reef less than five feet in elevation that has one of the more pristine coral reef atoll ecosystems in the Pacific Ocean.

Planning was so careful that even the selection of which equipment to use and the packing of it took months. Such planning was necessary because if anything needed had been left behind, it would have cost thousands of dollars to charter a flight to bring it in.

“Being so remote and so difficult and expensive to get anything in and out of there was a concern,” Curtin Maritime owner Capt. Martin Curtin said. “We started six months prior to the departure date in getting everything physically ready. There was a super high level of preparedness.”

The Curtin Maritime crew left its home dock on Sept. 17, 2013 and after a two-week layover in Honolulu, arrived in Palmyra Oct. 29.

“It was 21 days from Long Beach to Hawaii,” Curtin said. “We staged in Hawaii for bottom cleaning and rat inspections and all the environmental issues that they (at Fish & Wildlife) want, to make sure your vessels are clean prior to getting in.”

After mobilizing some additional equipment in Hawaii, it took eight days to travel from Hawaii to Palmyra, Curtin said.

The wreck removal project was undertaken because a study of the main wreck site showed that decomposition of a steel fishing vessel was having adverse effects on the local reef. The wreck’s decomposition was enriching the seawater with iron, leading to the growth of invasive organisms, specifically corallimorph, a smothering growth that leads to the phenomenon known as black reef. Black reef, if unchecked, can completely cover an area, suffocate other coral species and eventually destroy the reef.

Due to the delicate nature of the ecosystem, one of Fish & Wildlife’s mandates for the removal project was that marine life not be adversely affected by the wreck removals, something that was as challenging as playing a claw crane game at an arcade and using the joystick-controlled claw to grab one plush toy without disturbing, or even touching, any of the others.

“The main hurdle for the project was definitely the sensitivity to the environment that we were working in,” Curtin said. “Fish & Wildlife set out for zero environmental impact for the project, which for this style of equipment was extremely difficult to do, but we were able to obtain that goal throughout the entire project and maintain it, which was great. Definitely environmental impact was the biggest one to overcome.”

The first shipwreck the team raised was the Hui Feng, which ran aground at Palmyra in 1992.

The ship was laying on its right side in about 20 feet of water, surrounded by shallow coral heads. Because conditions didn’t allow for the vessel to simply be raised, the wreck was cut up in pieces and those pieces were lifted via crane through the reef to a waiting barge.

Five divers spent a total of 880 hours cutting up the 121-foot ship with exothermic torches, burning rods, chainsaws and jackhammers. Overall, about 620,000 pounds of steel and other shipwreck debris were removed from the wreck location.

Pieces were rigged and hoisted, then transported from the area using custom-built, self-propelled mini-barges that were designed by Curtin Maritime and built by Seattle-based Snow & Co.

While the Hui Feng operation was still in progress, work began on the removal of a second wreck, a US Navy sectional barge that had gotten loose from its mooring and ran aground in the early 1950s.

The barge, which had disintegrated into small pieces over the decades and had been given the nickname “Rust Island” by Fish & Wildlife staff, was sitting in just three feet of water and had to be accessed at high tide. Because of this, the most viable option for its removal involved days of manual labor, as members of the project team shoveled debris into buckets.

In all, a total volume of nearly 278,000 pounds of steel and debris were removed from the location, according to Curtin Maritime.

The third – and most dangerous – phase of the multi-tiered project involved the removal of an 80-foot unmarked fishing vessel at Kingman Reef, a location about 30 miles north of Palmyra known for its severe weather.

The fishing vessel, which ran aground in 2007, had been hit by heavy surf and storms over the years, causing the wreck to break up and create a large debris field, which had been causing rapid growth of invasive green algae.

The wreckage, which was located in shallow water, could only be accessed at high tide, and because of inclement weather, only one trip a day could be made onto the reef. However, in three trips, the work crew managed to remove about 44,000 pounds of steel and other materials, all while working in violent surge and high surf.

Over the course of over two-and-a-half months, the project team managed to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds of shipwreck material from the sea from three wrecks.

“We removed 970,000 pounds, the great majority of that was steel,” Capt. Curtin said. “We probably had 60-to-70,000 pounds of rubbish debris: plywood, foam, fishing nets, things like that.”

Five divers spent a total of 880 hours cutting up the 121-foot Hui Feng with exothermic torches, burning rods, chainsaws and jackhammers. Photo courtesy of Curtin Maritime.

With their mission accomplished, all members of the project team returned to the mainland, along with 970,000 pounds of junk, in mid-March. Because of their work removing the materials, the Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef ecosystems now have an opportunity to recover from the added nutrients caused by the iron and the resulting black reef.

“By removing the wrecks and invasive species, the (Fish & Wildlife) Service is giving these reefs the best chance to adapt to global climate and oceanographic changes,” Palmyra Atoll & Kingman Reef Refuge Manager Amanda Pollock said.

The removal of the three wrecks and associated debris is just the first step in a larger coral reef restoration project at Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef, according to Fish & Wildlife. Monitoring reef recovery and the removal and control of invasive corallimorph are expected to last at least the next few years.


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