The US navy has confirmed that two fighter jets dropped four unarmed bombs into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef marine park when a training exercise went wrong.
Environmentalists are outraged by the incident, which took place last week.
Larissa Waters, an Australian senator and the Green Party’s spokeswoman on the Great Barrier Reef, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: “Have we gone completely mad?Is this how we look after our World Heritage area now? Letting a foreign power drop bombs on it?”
It happened during a joint exercise with the Australian Defence force.
The Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the world’s largest coral reef system.
The pilots of the jets had intended to drop the four bombs on the Townshend Island bomb range, but could not do so after being were told there were hazards in the area, Commander William Marks of the US Seventh Fleet told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“It was not safe to drop the bombs. There were civilian boats right below them,” said Marks. The US Navy has also said in a statement the jets were low on fuel.
“The Harriers … needed to get back to the ship, and so they conducted an emergency jettison,” Marks said.
The bombs are lying in a deep channel away from the reef to “minimise the possibility of reef damage”, the US navy said.
The site was approximately 50 to 60 metres (165-200 feet) deep and did not pose a hazard to shipping or navigation.
“We are coordinating with Australian officials to ensure an appropriate navigation notice is issued until charts can be updated showing the location of the unexploded ordnance,” the US Navy statement said.
Australian media reported the US Navy was planning to recover the four bombs, although the Navy was not immediately available to comment on the reports.