September has been a challenging month.
On Monday, September 2, the dive charter MV Conception was on a three-day dive excursion within Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) when a catastrophic fire on the boat killed 34 people, including all 33 guests and one member of the boat’s crew. This tragedy hit close to home for our CINMS staff, colleagues, volunteers, and at other West Coast sanctuary units. Many sanctuary staff have been aboard the Conception and her sister ships for recreational diving, abalone habitat assessment, and other trips.
CINMS staff is supporting the federal and local agency response to the fire by providing their expertise in developing a salvage operation plan that considers the sensitive habitats and resources within the response area. The sanctuary vessel Shark Cat was used for a multi-agency visit to the incident site, and the RV Shearwater is supporting the Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Transportation Safety Board’s evidence recovery efforts.
The sanctuary is a haven for species close to extinction, is home to delicate habitats, and contains shipwrecks and other maritime heritage artifacts. Many valuable commercial and recreational activities, such as fishing, shipping, and tourism — including diving — occur in the sanctuary, and thousands of people come to visit it each year. As the local dive community is a tight-knit group, the emotional support for our sanctuary staff is of great importance.
While the events of the boating fire unfolded, Hurricane Dorian unleashed its fury over the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island, raining down crushing winds and causing crushing storm surge, leaving an estimated 70,000 people homeless, and a death toll that continues to grow in number. In anticipation of the storm, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia declared a state of emergency, and some coastal counties from Florida to North Carolina issued mandatory evacuation orders.
I am relieved to share that no injuries were reported among NOS and NOS partner staff, and that there were no major damages to our and our partners’ facilities. I’m also proud to share that NOS’s response to the storm was timely, efficient, and well-organized. We captured over 12,000 aerial images, coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard to conduct hydrographic survey requests to aid in re-opening ports, identified over 60 potential pollution risks, ensured that coastal management tools were readily available for both individual states and their populations, monitored water levels and meteorological conditions in real-time, and our partners reopened sanctuaries and National Estuarine Research Reserves. NOS has now turned its attention to offering technical expertise and assets to the Bahamas in the event that they are needed.
We can do our best to plan for unforeseen events, but natural disasters like Dorian and tragedies like the Conception fire can strike at any time. While we can’t always control or prevent these events, we can respond to them strategically, and ready our services in their aftermath.