Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers have helped to reopen access to Elizabeth Reef, one of the world’s most significant and biologically diverse coral reefs situated within the Lord Howe Marine Park, 550km from the NSW coastline.
A team from Australian Clearance Diving Team One (AUSCDT ONE), supported by ship’s company from HMAS Adelaide and air support from an embarked MRH-90 helicopter, combined to locate and remove unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the reef at the request of Parks Australia.
Commanding Officer HMAS Adelaide, Captain Jonathan Ley, said that the ship and embarked Clearance Diving Team had been tasked with investigating the UXO following the closure of Elizabeth Reef to recreational users and fishing vessels due to safety concerns.
“I was very pleased that Adelaide in conjunction with our supporting assets were able to safely clear this unexploded ordnance,” Captain Ley said.
“Navy Clearance Divers, specialised in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), utilised Landing Craft and an MRH-90 helicopter from Adelaide to move the device from Elizabeth Reef and dispose of it, in deep water, whilst at the same time preserving the natural environment.”
Both Elizabeth Reef and the nearby Middleton Reef are listed as wetlands of international significance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty aimed at preserving the world’s most significant wetlands.
Captain Ley said that the protection of the reef had been paramount to the team’s planning.
“In Navy we respect the oceans at all times and take great care in protecting our environment, both in terms of sea life and reefs. As professional mariners it is very important to us,” he said.
The two reefs are the southern-most coral reefs in the world and support a rich and diverse marine flora and fauna, including the rare Black Cod and the Galapagos Reef Shark.
AUSCDT ONE Officer in Charge of Maritime Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Chief Petty Officer Chad Buhlman, said that because the UXO was lodged on the coral reef, it was important to use a disposal method that would both protect the environment and ensure the safety of the team.
The clearance divers used a standard maritime “raise and tow technique” that could move the ordnance to deep water where it was safely re-located.
While the team practise these manoeuvres regularly, Chief Petty Officer Buhlman said that the biggest challenge had been to locate the ordnance, which was covered in marine life and hard to recognise.
“Working in such a remote area, we were extremely fortunate to have Adelaide available as a platform to work from, with access to air support, landing craft and satellite communications,” he said.
Clearance Diver and second in charge of the operation, Petty Officer Kaine Duncan, was first to locate the UXO on the reef. He said its location could have posed a significant danger to any visitors.
“The biggest challenge was always going to be to locate the UXO when it was blended into the reef, but once we had the location we knew this was going to be a successful operation,” Petty Officer Duncan said.
With the UXO safely removed, Elizabeth Reef can once again open to visitors for boat tours, diving, snorkelling and fishing.
Adelaide is currently Navy’s high-readiness vessel and the designated Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Recovery (HADR) response ship over the coming months.