SAN JUAN ISLAND, Wash. - Several weeks after a fishing vessel sank near San Juan Island, causing panic for the well-being of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the Coast Guard is preparing to bring the vessel to the surface.
Two windows have been identified by the team responsible for the Aleutian Isle sinking as ideal to bring the ship to the surface. The announcement came Friday, after several weeks of work.
Work to retrieve the ship has been slow to develop for a variety of reasons: the depth is extremely difficult for divers to operate in, the currents near the San Juans are difficult, and not to mention the ship itself moved from where it first came to rest after a salvage team first arrived on-site in mid-August.
It's not a certainty that the ship will be raised on Saturday, or that the ship will be raised at all. Members of the team responding to the Aleutian Isle sinking have noted that they're confident the ship can be raised but have stopped short of ruling out the possibility that the recovery could become too risky.
The ordeal began on Aug.13, when the 58-foot long Aleutian Isle first went down with an estimated 2,600 gallons of diesel, and oil. What made the initial hours concerning is that it coincided with the Southern Resident killer whales, a species of orca that are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, returning to the San Juans.
The killer whales -- along with another species -- have come and gone since the initial sinking, which means teams have had to train in preparation to "haze" or deter the whales in case they return while oil is spilled.
Over the course of the past week, the Coast Guard reports minimal sheening, meaning less oil has been leaking from the ship. Divers, along with help from a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), have worked to remove fishing nets and attach cables to the ship to prepare it for a crane to lift the vessel to the surface.
Responders expect some fuel to spill during the lifting of the vessel. According to the Department of Ecology, "any released fuel will likely not be an amount that would cause significant environmental risk."
That said, they're preparing for worst-case scenarios, including:
- Placing absorbent material that can lessen the impact of oil released into the water near geographically sensitive sites
- Personnel will be on-hand to track any potential oil sheen
- Wildlife crews will be on hand to patrol "ecologically sensitive areas"
- A team will be on-hand to deter whales that may come near the response
If the public sees uncontained oil sheening, you're asked to call the National Response Center at: 1-800-424-8802. If you encounter oiled wildlife you're asked to call 1-800-22-BIRDS.