FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. - Two weeks after an oil spill began off the west side of San Juan Island, divers began work that will allow them to plug a sunken fishing vessel more than 200 feet below the surface.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Divers were brought in to plug the ship a few days after the Aleutian Isle in mid-August, but they quickly realized the vessel had shifted from its initial position. Making matters worse, nets that were attached to the ship had made it dangerous to approach without removing them.
On Friday additional equipment arrived including heliox gas for divers to dive at depths below 200 feet, and a crane that is capable of lifting the vessel out of the water once dive teams have plugged up the ship to ensure any remaining diesel, oil doesn’t spill.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the work will take several days to complete. On top of its challenging depth, crews will be limited to specific windows during slack tide – typically an event that occurs once a day.
"The dive and salvage operations are heavily determined by on-scene weather conditions," said a spokesperson, "including things like tide and current."
On Saturday at least two transient killer whales, also known as Bigg’s killer whales, swam through the site of the ongoing operation. The event happened after an oil sheen was spotted near the area for the first time since Wednesday – albeit, smaller than the initial sheen that was visible early-on.
Initially, the situation was drawing extra attention because the spill had spread out to a miles-long oil sheen on the surface. There was concern over whales, seals and other marine life getting close to the spill. It appears most of the diesel has evaporated – it’s unknown how much more remains in the ship, which is why salvage work taking place this weekend is so important.
Some biologists that work with killer whales have said the ship could be a "ticking time bomb," given the lack of knowledge they have about what’s left inside it.
The biggest concern, however, came during the initial days of the Aleutian Isle sinking, and spilling oil into the water. The Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species, came within a few miles of the spill as it was still spreading across the water.
"It’s scary because we know one catastrophic oil spill could spell the end of the Southern Residents," said Monika Wieland Shields, the founder of Orca Behavior Institute. "We’ve been talking about the threat of oils spills for years – so it’s very concerning and frustrating if we’re not prepared for something like this."
Since then, a number of entities have been practicing the use of a specialized pipes, called oikomi pipes, that can create loud noises – something that could be used in an attempt to haze, or deter, any orcas that come near the site.
That work will be critical when the attempt to raise the ship officially begins. According to oil spill experts, that is when the greatest risk of a secondary spill will take place – the plan, according to people familiar, is for people to be on-site ready to haze any large marine mammals that could attempt to get near the site when the ship is brought back up to the surface.