Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority found the 755-foot (230-meter) Shen Neng 1 left a scar 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long and up to 820 feet (250 meters) wide along the world's largest coral reef, said scientist David Wachenfeld, who is coordinating the authority's assessment of the ship's impact.
"We were expecting some fairly severe damage to this location, and our observations to date confirm that expectation", he said. The Shen Neng 1 slammed into a shoal on April 3, and coral shredded part of its hull, causing a leak of about 3 tons of oil.That oil was dispersed by chemical sprays and is believed to have caused little or no damage to the reef.
The vessel was successfully lifted off the coral reef on Monday after crews spent three days pumping heavy fuel oil from the ship to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near Great Keppel Island, 38 nautical miles (44 miles, 70 kilometers) away.
Damage to the reef was particularly bad because the vessel did not stay in one place once it grounded, Wachenfeld said.
Instead, tides and currents pushed it along the reef, crushing and smearing potentially toxic paint onto coral and plants, he said.
In some areas, "all marine life has been completely flattened and the structure of the shoal has been pulverized by the weight of the vessel", Wachenfeld said.
It will be at least another week before the full extent of the damage is known, but the area's recovery could take up to two decades, he said.
Perhaps most concerning to the scientists is the chemical makeup of the paint used on the ship's hull, which divers have found spread across the vast majority of the impacted region.
Many oceangoing vessels are covered in what is known as "anti-fouling" paint, which prevents marine life from growing on their hulls and creating drag.
Certain paints contain chemicals that prevent such growth, while others simply act as a barrier. Scientists with the reef authority plan to analyze paint left by the Shen Neng to see if it contains heavy metals. If it does, Wachenfeld said, it would not only kill the marine life currently on the shoal, but prevent new life from colonizing there.
The Australian Federal Police, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority are investigating alleged breaches of the law connected with the accident.
The grounding forced a review of shipping regulations in the fragile area. Queensland state Premier Anna Bligh vowed on Monday to sharply increase penalties on ships causing oil spills. Bligh said the maximum penalty for corporations would increase from 1.75 million Australian dollars ($1.64 million) to AU $10 million, and individuals would face fines of AU$500,000 - up from AU$350,000.
The proposed new penalties are the latest sign that authorities are serious about stepping up protection of the fragile reef.
On Monday, three crewmen from another boat that allegedly entered restricted reef waters on April 4 appeared in Townsville Magistrates Court on charges of entering a prohibited zone of the reef without permission.
The South Korean master and two Vietnamese officers of the Panama-flagged coal boat MV Mimosa were granted bail and ordered to reappear on Friday. They face maximum fines of 220,000 Australian dollars ($205,000).