On August 4, 1984, M/V Wellwood, the 122 meter Cypriot-registered freighter,ran aground on Molasses Reef (Key Largo, FL). Staying grounded for twelve days, the freighter caused damage (ranging from ‘mere’ scrapes and deposits of bottom paint to the crushing and cracking of major coral heads) to 5,805 square meters of living coral and injury to 75,000 square meters of reef habitat. The grounding also caused a widespread mortality of benthic fauna (or benthos: organisms existing at the lowest level of a body of water including sediment surface or sub-surface layers) and displacement of mobile fauna.
Known as “the parking lot” because of it’s flattened nature, the coral on the fore reef front was near to total destruction. Having been the resting site of the Wellwood, the coral here was crushed from vessel pounding, and experienced severe shading. On the vessels starboard side, at least six boulder coral colonies, along with other small organisms, were destroyed as the ship pivoted and scraped the bottom.
Once reported, the Key Largo and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary provided technical assistance to the Coast Guard, and performed numerous dives to assess the threat of any further injury. In the years preceding the wreck, NOAA biologists searched for and re-oriented surviving coral to the area, and they were able to turn over large coral heads.
In 1985, further damage was caused by hurricanes Elena and Kate as they swept through the reef, and removed the loose and even the newly-developing coral. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary estimated that an additional 46 cubic meters of coral and other material had been taken by the storms.
In December, 1986, a settlement was agreed that required the Wellwood Shipping Company and the Hanseatic Company to pay an insurance annuity within 15 years, starting in 1987. The final payment was completed in 2001, and the total cost was $6.275 million.
NOAA and other organizations conducted restoration projects that included the stabilizing of the reef framework, providing structural restoration, and reintroducing biological communities. Although the reef has improved, Molasses Reef still remains a fragile ecosystem. In fact, all coral reefs are fragile, and all should be monitored, taken care of, and respected by all who wish to see it’s beauty.