Our Burning Planet


The life – and pollution – documented inside the sunken Cable Restorer

The life – and pollution – documented inside the sunken Cable Restorer
From left: Wheelie bins inside the wreck of the Cable Restorer, now underwater after it sank in September 2023. (Photo: Supplied) | The Cable Restorer in Simon’s Town Harbour before it sank, October 2021. (Photo: Julia Evans | A net attached to the Cable Restorer after it sank in September 2023. (Photos: Supplied)

The 79-year-old cable ship sank a week ago in Simon’s Town Harbour. This is what the wreck holds below the surface.

‘There’s life inside the wreck,” said the diver who documented the condition of the decommissioned cable ship CS Cable Restorer after it sank to the bottom of Simon’s Town Harbour last Monday, 25 September.

The 79-year-old cable ship, which was decommissioned in 1993, had been sitting in Simon’s Town Harbour – tied to the Navy’s Breakwater on the False Bay Yacht Club side of the harbour – for several years, slowly disintegrating. 

sunken cable restorer

Marine life around the wreck of the Cable Restorer that sank on 25 September 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

After it was decommissioned, the ship was used as a museum under the custodianship of the Simon’s Town Museum and was later transferred to seasoned mariner and a previous mayor of Simon’s Town, Harry Dilley, who had invested funds in its maintenance since its decommissioning and was cutting it up for scrap.

Even before it sank, part of the ship’s broken hull had been lying below the surface of the water for many years, resulting in marine life living inside the wreck, with more detected swimming around since it sank a week ago.

And now, what’s left of the 75m-long ship (which was used for harbour defence work in WW2 before being used as a cable ship), lies at the bottom of the harbour – along with nets, ropes, plastic bags, rubble, chairs and several wheelie bins that contain a dark, sticky substance, as documented by the diver, who wishes to remain anonymous.

sunken cable restorer

A scuba diver documented the many wheelie bins in the Cable Restorer wreck in Simon’s Town Harbour on 2 October 2023, a week after it sank. (Photo: Supplied)

sunken cable restorer

A third of the wheelie bins reportedly contained a dark, sticky substance. (Photo: Supplied)

Some of that pollution might have been blown in by the strong currents and winds caused by the cut-off low pressure system that hit the Cape last week.

Peter Mbelengwa, spokesperson for the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), told Daily Maverick that “an unknown amount of oil was reported to have leaked from the sunk vessel and an oil/fuel slick was reported offshore of Simon’s Town Long Beach at the time”.

While the main fuel supplies and the engine room were removed years ago, there was some remaining oil residue, raising concerns among locals about the marine environment.

sunken cable restorer

Underneath the surface of Simon’s Town Harbour, the wreck of the Cable Restorer a week after it sank. (Photo: Supplied)

No distressed seabirds have been detected, but the bigger concern seems to be what remains in the harbour, and how the owner of the vessel – Dilley – will salvage it.

Read more about the oil clean-up efforts in Daily Maverick: Cable Restorer sinking in storm raises oil spill alert for endangered Simon’s Town penguins

Mbelengwa said the SA Navy responded immediately when the vessel sank. The Naval Harbour Master deployed booms around the sunken vessel in an effort to contain the oil from spreading, and a duty surveyor from the government’s South African Maritime Safety Authority was dispatched to investigate.

However, Mbelengwa added that the rough weather conditions at the time (strong southeasterly winds, heavy rain and very rough seas) made it difficult to track the slick.

sunken cable restorer

A plastic bag floats in the wreck of the Cable Restorer in Simon’s Town Harbour. (Photo: Supplied)

The weather reportedly swept a small amount of oil/fuel residue to the Clovelly side of Fish Hoek Beach and Glencairn, with the City of Cape Town’s Coastal Management unit and SanParks’ Boulders section initiating an oil-spill wildlife response on Monday, 25 September, and continuing to monitor beaches and the penguin colonies for signs of birds in distress.

Salvage operation

“The DFFE has consulted with the Navy, and they have advised that the owner of the Cable Restorer, Mr Harry Dilley, is responsible for the wreck removal,” Mbelengwa said, which the Navy confirmed to Daily Maverick.

Dilley and his personal assistant were approached multiple times by Daily Maverick over the past week for comment, but offered no response.

“The owner has appointed AB Shipping to remove the wreck and is looking at a three-month period once the removal plans have been approved,” Mbelengwa said.

“The Navy is still assisting the owner in terms of pollution control with advice from DFFE and will be deploying more booms around the sunken vessel over the weekend in anticipation of the predicted inclement weather conditions.”

Dilley and his team were informed of the concerns around the pollution in the wreck, and asked about the immediate impact this would have on the marine environment, but had not responded at the time of publication. DM

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