Error processing SSI file

Error processing SSI file


Return to Wellwood Home Page

 The Project

View of an undamaged coral spur adjacent to the grounding site depicting typical reef biota in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The Grounding Site

Molasses Reef and Ecological Sanctuary Preservation Area contain some of the most aesthetically valuable and heavily visited reefs in the continental United States. It is part of the Florida Reef Tract, the third largest barrier reef system in the world. Congress recognized the significance of this area when it designated the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary in 1975. It was later incorporated into the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in July 1997. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, managed by NOAA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, protects 2,800 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral reef, hardbottom, seagrass meadows, mangrove communities and sand flats.

Threats to the Environment

The Florida Keys marine environment is deteriorating. This is evidenced by a decline in the number of healthy corals, an invasion of algae into the seagrass beds and onto the reefs, declines in fisheries and fish stocks, and an increase in coral diseases and bleaching. In Florida Bay, reduced freshwater flow has resulted in an increase in plankton blooms, sponge and seagrass die-offs, and fish kills.

Human presence in and around marine environments can have detrimental effects. Over 4 million people visit the Keys annually, with 70% actually spending time in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Additionally, over 80,000 people reside in the Keys full-time. Resident and visitor populations are the main causes of over-nutrification that result from sewage runoff in nearshore waters. The most visible damage incurred by human incidence results from the carelessness or, on occasion, the recklessness of ship captains, boaters, fishermen, divers, snorklers and beachgoers. Recreational vessel registration has increased six-fold since 1965 with propellers alone damaging over 30,000 acres of seagrass. Other impacts to resources result from careless standing on coral, improper placement of anchors, and destructive fishing methods. More than 600 groundings are reported in the sanctuary each year, with 677 reported last year. The result has been damage or destruction to over 19 acres of coral reef habitat. Damage caused by human impact hinders the ability of marine life to recover from natural stressors. Some intervention is needed for the reefs to recover the hundreds of years of growth obliterated under the keel of a vessel. Intervention is even more crucial in areas where corals are subjected to physical stresses like hurricanes that can increase area damaged by multiples in a day. Without some physical rebuilding of the underlying structure, recruitment of coral and other benthic species is handicapped by geologic time as well as all the other stressors on the health of the reef ecosystems.


The M/V Wellwood Grounding

The Injury

On August 4, 1984, the M/V Wellwood, a 122-meter Cypriot-registered freighter traveling in 6 meters of water, ran aground on Molasses Reef about 6 nautical miles southeast of Key Largo in Monroe County, Florida. The Wellwood remained grounded for 12 days injuring the coral more as time went on. Damage occurred as result of initial attempts to power off the reef, from tugboat prop wash abrasion, from extended periods of shading under the vessel, and from cable abrasion during several failed attempts to remove the vessel from the reef. The grounding destroyed 5,805 square meters of living corals and injured over 75,000 square meters of reef habitat, including 644 square meters of coral reef framework.

Tugboats attempting to remove M/V Wellwood from Molasses Reef. Click image for 300 dpi version. (Photo: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

The grounding caused adverse biological and physical damage to the reef community and led to widespread mortality of benthic fauna and displacement of mobile fauna. The injury ranged from superficial scraping of the reef surface and toppling of large coral heads to complete crushing of coral heads and severe cracking of the reef framework structure, with five distinct areas identified as injured.

As the vessel approached the reef, it created an inbound grounding track approximately 20 meters wide and affected bottom substrate up to 6 meters deep. The injury toppled or injured thirteen large coral heads and left bottom paint embedded in exposed coral skeletons. The Wellwood also removed a Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary mooring buoy along this track. Toppled corals were stabilized immediately following the grounding. For the most part, natural recovery is occurring along the inbound tract and thus restoration in this area is not necessary.

On the fore reef where the hull of the Wellwood came to rest, there was near to total destruction of the coral cover. This entire area was crushed though vessel pounding for 12 days and experienced severe shading during the 12 days the vessel was aground. This area is known as the “parking lot” because of its flattened nature and is the primary area in need of restoration.

Along the starboard side of the hull resting site there was an extensive area that experienced patchy areas of destruction. This was the original resting area of the vessel before it pivoted during initial removal attempts. At least six large boulder coral colonies and numerous smaller organisms were destroyed as the vessel scraped the bottom. This area, while not as flattened as the hull resting site, is in need of restoration and is also the subject of the restoration project.

Response to Grounding

Vessel Salvage (1984)

As soon as the incident was reported, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary and Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary staff responded and assisted on site until the Wellwood was removed. They provided technical assistance to the U.S. Coast Guard and performed reconnaissance dives to assess the threat of further injury to the reefs. The Coast Guard took charge of having the vessel removed while coordinating with the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary staff.

Aerial view of M/V Wellwood removal from Molasses Reef. Click image for 300 dpi version. (Photo: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

Emergency Biological Triage (August 1984 and 1985)

Immediately following documentation of the grounding, NOAA biologists thoroughly searched the area for survival of damaged coral colonies. Few corals survived the initial impact and the extended grounding period; however, those that did were salvaged and re-oriented in the area. In addition, several large head corals (greater than 6 feet diameter) were turned over and left in place.

Settlement (December 22, 1986)

The settlement with the Wellwood Shipping Company (owner of the vessel) and the Hanseatic Shipping Company (shipping management company) was not reached until December of 1986. This settlement provided $6.275 million through purchase of an insurance annuity to be paid out over a 15-year period, starting in 1987. The initial years of the settlement covered the costs of a Civil Penalty, or fine, and reimbursed the emergency response costs of both NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard. The final payment was scheduled for and paid in December 2001.

Long-term Monitoring (Ongoing)

Broken brain coral and rubble resulting from the grounding. Click image for 300 dpi version. (Photo: Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary)

Immediately after the grounding event, NOAA funded several monitoring efforts at the most heavily injured grounding sites in order to document the recovery and status of the impact area. This has included monitoring coral community recovery, fish population recovery, and algal community recovery. In addition, NOAA has developed a post-restoration monitoring plan and thus, monitoring will continue after the project completion.

Historical, Archeological and Cultural Resources

Items of cultural resource value have been identified in the project area, but not within the immediate areas of reef repair. Specific efforts will be made to ensure no impact to these resources during the restoration project.

Development of a Restoration Plan

In response to the grounding and the subsequent vessel removal efforts, NOAA developed a proposed restoration plan for the site. Drawing on the experience gained from restoring other grounding sites in the region, the plan outlined a preferred alternative for the restoration of the Wellwood grounding site.


Subsequent Damage

Additional injury to the reef occurred as a result of Hurricanes Elena and Kate in 1985 and the active 1998 storm season (Groundhog Day Storm, Hurricane Georges). Hurricane Kate removed much of the loose rubble created by the grounding that had remained at the site during the first year, as well as some of the newly recruiting corals. The 1998 storm season caused further scouring and vertical erosion of the “parking lot” area, created several pits, and exposed the underlying framework cracks to additional erosion potential. Current calculations by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) staff estimate that an additional 46 cubic meters of material has been lost from the site since the original injury occurred.

Satellite image from NOAA/NESDIS of Hurricane Georges as the center passed over Key West, Florida on September 25, 1998. This hurricane caused significant additional damage to the Molasses Key Reef site where the M/V Wellwood ran aground.

No volumetric measurements were taken at the time of grounding, but NOAA estimates that 75% of the volume of current excavations is the result of post grounding injury; this is only a very rough estimate, but it represents the best estimate available from NOAA. The 1998 storm season also removed many of the juvenile coral recruits and the colonies that had been transplanted in 1985 from nearby Pickles Reef. Although damage from hurricanes is a natural occurrence, NOAA believes that the extent of hurricane damage was increased due to the already compromised state of the injured reef.

Restoration Plan

NOAA will attempt to restore physical relief to the M/V Wellwood grounding site at Molasses Reef, FKNMS. This will include restoration from damage resulting from the grounding and additional injury caused by the 1998 storm season. The restoration will involve stabilizing the injured reef framework to prevent further injury to the reef system, provide structural restoration to mimic the original relief, and re-establishment of biological communities. The goal is to ultimately restore the reef to the greatest extent practicable, to a state similar to what existed before the injury occurred. Because Molasses Reef is a Sanctuary Preservation Area and a high profile tourist destination, NOAA believes it especially important to design an aesthetically pleasing restoration solution for this grounding site. It is proposed that the repairs will begin May 20, 2002 and continue through June 2002, lasting approximately six weeks. Several sanctuary mooring buoys will be removed during the project and will be reinstalled upon completion.

Safety Concerns

Although the restoration will occur in a heavily used recreational dive and snorkel area, it must be timed with the best weather conditions, which coincide with the peak dive season. To ensure public safety, NOAA requests that the public to avoid the area during restoration construction. Appropriate notice will be given to the public to encourage the use of alternative locations. Closure area buoys and construction markers will outline the boundaries of the work site. Additionally, signs will be posted in a conspicuous manner on the construction barge and in the construction area. The signs will be sufficiently large and visible so as to be clearly read from all directions outside the construction area.

Site Coordinates

A: 25° 00’ 37.96364”N 80° 22’ 14.60425”W
B: 25° 00’ 31.20173”N 80° 22’ 22.54159”W
C: 25° 00’ 45.20646”N 80°22’ 22.02476”W
D: 25° 00’ 38.44445”N 80° 22’ 29.96212”W



NOAA logo Revised February 22, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Group
Many links leave the National Marine Sanctuary Web Site - please view our Link Disclaimer for more information
National Ocean Service | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | U.S. Department of Commerce | NOAA Library | Privacy Policy
Contact Us |