An 85 foot luxury yacht – “The Great Escape” is tonight lodged
on Belize’s barrier reef near Hunting Caye. It has been there since November
30th of last year when it’s captain and owner – American national
Albert Barscroft ran aground on a portion of the reef in the Sapodilla and Hunting
Caye Range while exiting Belizean territorial waters.
What’s news tonight is that the yacht is falling apart and it needs to
be removed to avoid an environmental catastrophe. The yacht is loaded with fuel
and after being lodged on the reef for 6 weeks – the Department of Environment
fears that it is beginning to break. The vessel hasn’t been removed because
according to the DOE, the yacht’s owner allegedly paid Jorge Alfredo Aldana
US$10,000 to remove but he didn’t. Aldana allegedly wanted another US$60,000
to remove it.
So now it is in the hands of the Department of Environment which we are told
is trying to gather the necessary funds – reportedly between $30,000 and
$50,000 to pay to have it ship pulled off the reef. The owner will then reimburse
The yacht’s owner Albert Barscroft is not in the country because after
he was detained by the Coast Guard after the yacht ran aground, he had a heart
attack and was rushed to Guatemala for treatment. He has yet to return.
Because the vessel is still lodged on the reef, the Department of Environment
has been unable to assess the damage to the reef. The Port Authority is however
still investigating the cause of the accident. We are told that the evidence
so far suggests that the accident was a result of negligence.
Jan 21, 2010 - 2 months after grounding; the Great Escape still lodged at the reef
On November thirtieth another vessel was added to the cadre of foreign vessels that have navigated into the reef. The Great Escape an eighty-five foot luxury yacht, like its predecessors the Westerhaven and the Azteca, has crashed on Belize’s priceless barrier reef. All accounts say that the yacht’s owner did not check in with any authorities as is prescribed when they enter Belizean waters, and the vessel appeared to be leaving when it ran smack into the reef. Three government arms, the Coastguard, the Fisheries Department, and the Department of Environment have been working on the case. The expensive vessel has the best navigational instruments and the incident has the appearance of human error. But why is it still lodged on the reef tonight? A News Five crew of reporter Jose Sanchez and cameraman Christopher Mangar joined the Fisheries Department as it examined the Great Escape.
Jose Sanchez, Reporting
Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve was established in1996. It is the southernmost part of the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site. Unlike the previous vessels that have come before, two months after running aground, a luxury yacht is still wreaking havoc on the corals. After the Coastguard received the distress call, the Manager of the reserve assisted in the rescue of the yacht passengers.
Dennis Garbutt, Manager Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve
“Myself with the Fisheries vessel and some of the Coast Guard members then came back out to assist the people because we had radio contact with them and were talking with them. They had two ladies on board. They were mostly older people and quite a bit of pets; cats and dogs and things like that. We were basically going back to take off a couple of the people who wanted to come off the boat and didn’t want to spend the night on it. They had Mr. Al, the captain of the boat at the time, the owner of the vessel; he reported that he has some heart problem so he would prefer to be ashore so we escorted them ashore. Probably about one-thirty the following day on the first of December, the Port Authority along with DOE came by along with two Coast Guard personnel and interviewed Mr. Al. We escorted him back to the ship where they did an inspection.”
The yacht which is registered in the British Virgin Islands is ironically named The Great Escape. The Marine Protected Areas Coordinator for the Fisheries Department was on site today to examine the damage done to the reef.
Isais Majil, Marine Protected Areas Coordinator, Fisheries Department
“We have received reports that the damage area is about one hundred and sixty feet by thirty feet. We have not done a comprehensive assessment to point to which species of coral were damaged and what was the habitat that was in the area. We are here to actually conduct that assessment at this time.”
“Okay, but your assessment cannot be completed until the vessel is moved. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, to have a very comprehensive and full assessment we need vessel to be removed so that we can actually pinpoint what was underneath and what is being crushed, the different species that actually are there. If that does not happen, what we can do is to do some assessments on both sides of the vessel and extrapolate to see that—well, we kinda picture that what is on the side is the same habitat underneath the vessel.”
But while the vessel continues to pummel the reef as it is hit by outgoing waves, fuel has leaked into the most protected part of the reserve called Conservation Zone One.
“A very, very pristine area and that’s why it’s given that category of protection. In this area we do not allow any type of extraction, meaning that the fishermen cannot use it. We only allow snorkeling and diving with strict guidelines.”
“Whose responsibility is it to see that the vessel is removed being that the owner is not here?”
“The first call comes for the vessel’s removal and safeguard is from Port Authority. When it comes to the biological assessment then the Department of Environment jumps in and the Fisheries Department also does the biological assessments. Everybody knows there is a decline in coral reef in the region. Belize is no exception so we need to protect what we have and every day we need to protect it more and more.”
“The Fisheries Department can levy charges but you prefer to have the DOE put the charges why is that?”
“The Fisheries ACT, which we use to create the marine reserves at its creation in 1977, the penalties are very low. So for damage on a marine reserve the most we could charge would be up to a thousand dollars. DOE, having revised their act and having more power to put higher penalties, we work with them so that these penalties can go as high as possible and at the same time we are working that these fines come back to try and restructure the and replenish the areas that are damaged.”
But there is a great escape in the story as the owner of the vessel Albert Barcroft was allowed to leave the country without any charges against him. According to Martin Alegria, Chief Environmental Officer for the D.O.E., they let him go because of his failing health.
Via Phone: Martin Alegria, Chief Environmental Officer, D.O.E.
“Apparently on the way to Placencia when we were bringing them in, the captain
suffered some form of heart problem that became complicated. We didn’t’ want to have a situation on our hands and after he explained to the team that he needed and was scheduled for some heart surgery and stuff like that and he did appear bad. So we did this using our own discretion. We had worked with him and conversed with him on the situation and told him that we were thinking of having him go to Guatemala where he would have attended to the situation before he gets more complicated here and as soon as we have the time to go and remove the boat and do the assessment we would be touching base with him in order for him or his insurance to address the damage caused to the barrier reef.”
“I personally didn’t witness any heart attack. However, when they took off on the thirtieth of November, they were supposed to take them to Belize City for charges. That would have been the entire crew and everybody that was involved in this incident were basically taken to Belize City for that. However, on the way Mr. Al had a heart attack or a heart condition and they had to take him into Placencia where he received some basic treatment.”
Barcroft is gone but the Department of the Environment is still in contact with his insurance company. A first attempt to remove the vessel by a local contractor has failed. All stakeholders involved agree that it is the world heritage site that needs a great escape from the careless onslaught by foreign vessels.
“The debris from the wreckage is now reaching islands such as Regget Caye. It highlights the importance for the Department of Environment to act quickly. Reporting for News Five, Jose Sanchez.”
The Department of the Environment’s assessment is almost complete, but whether or not Albert Barcroft will be located… that’s another matter.