Vessel recovery devices arrive off San Juan Island

Orcas turned back just before diesel sheen from sunken boat

SEATTLE — Orcas came within only a few miles of swimming through a sheen of diesel fuel from a sunken fishing boat off San Juan Island, the Orca Network of Freeland reported.

The nonprofit reported that on Aug. 13, the day the Aleutian Isle sank with up to 2,600 gallons of fuel on board, J, K, and most of L pod of Southern Residents were headed east in the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward San Juan Island, but they turned back before they encountered the sheen that had spread from the commercial fishing vessel.

“It is estimated that the whales made it within about 5 miles of the sheen before they turned back south,” the report said.

By the next day, the orcas were spotted westbound headed to the Pacific.

Recovery equipment for raising the Aleutian Isle arrived Sunday.

Once the dive team commences recovery operations, it is estimated to take 10 days. Recovery of the 49-foot boat grew more complicated when the vessel, which originally sank to about 100 feet deep, settled to more than 200 feet deep.

A mixture of oxygen and helium, known as heliox, is needed to dive at depths greater than 200 feet, the Coast Guard said.

Contractor Global Diving will use a barge and crane to raise the sunken vessel for transport, according to the Coast Guard.

Dive operations will include removing hazardous debris and securing fuel tank vents to prevent further pollutants from entering the water. Weather and tidal currents will limit their window for safely diving the wreck each day, the Coast Guard said.

Teams have been monitoring sheening and other signs of pollutants. Some 4,300 feet of absorbent boom had been laid along both sides of White Point Peninsula to protect wildlife, but at this point, the observed sheen is unrecoverable, weathered diesel, the Coast Guard said.

If orcas are seen near the site, personnel will use acoustic deterrence tools, known as oikomi pipes.

A temporary safety zone extends 1,000 yards around the dive site. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a temporary flight restriction (TFR) around the incident site, which includes drones.

The Unified Command overseeing the effort consists of the Coast Guard, the state Department of Ecology, San Juan Office of Emergency Management and the Swinomish Tribe.

All five passengers were rescued unharmed before the boat sank.

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Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at [email protected].

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