Manila - All 79 officers and crew of a US Navy minesweeper stuck on a coral reef in the central Philippines have left the ship two days after efforts to free the vessel failed, the Navy said Saturday.
The ship ran aground on Thursday while in transit through the Tubbataha National Marine Park, a coral sanctuary in the Sulu Sea, 640km southwest of Manila. There were no injuries or oil leaks, and Philippine authorities were trying to evaluate damage to the protected coral reef, designated by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
The US Navy's 7th Fleet earlier on Friday said 72 of the crew of the USS Guardian were transferred for safety reasons to a military support vessel and a naval survey ship. The Navy said in a statement hours later that all 79 crew members, including the commanding and the executive officers, had left the stricken ship.
The statement quoted 7th Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Scott Swift as saying other ships "remain on scene and essential Guardian sailors will continue conducting survey operations onboard the ship as needed until she is recovered".
He said several support vessels have arrived at the area and "all steps are being taken to minimize environmental effects while ensuring the crew's continued safety".
The World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines said that according to an initial visual inspection, the 68-metre-long, 1 300-ton Guardian damaged at least 10m of the reef. Aerial photographs provided by the Philippine military showed the ship's bow sitting atop corals in shallow turquoise waters. The stern was floating in the deep blue waters. The Navy said the cause of the grounding, which took place about 02:00 on Thursday, was under investigation.
Angelique Songco, head of the government's Protected Area Management Board, said it was unclear how much of the reef was damaged. She said the government imposes a fine of about $300 per square metre of damaged coral.
In 2005, the environmental group Greenpeace was fined almost $7 000 after its flagship struck a reef in the same area.
Songco said that park rangers were not allowed to board the ship for inspection and were told to contact the US Embassy in Manila.
Philippine military spokesperson Major Oliver Banaria said the US Navy did not request assistance from the Philippines.
US Navy ships have stepped up visits to Philippine ports for refuelling, rest and recreation, plus joint military exercises as a result of a redeployment of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Philippines, a US defence treaty ally, has been entangled in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.