‘Incredibly lucky’: Endangered killer whales avoid diesel spill off San Juan Island

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A fishing boat carrying 2,600 gallons of fuel sank off the west coast of San Juan Island on Saturday, releasing an oily sheen that spread 2 miles into critical habitat for endangered killer whales of the North West.

The researchers called it “incredibly lucky” that whales and diesel apparently never crossed paths.

The crew aboard the Aleutian Island radioed for help on Saturday, saying they were taking on water. They abandoned their sinking ship and climbed into the skiff they normally use to maneuver the boat’s purse-like net to catch salmon.

Two other salmon fishing boats, the Marathon and the Intruder, rescued the crew of five before the US Coast Guard arrived.

The 58ft Aleutian Island sank to the sea floor in more than 100ft of water around 2pm.

The amount of fuel from the vessel spilled is unknown.

The vast majority of the fuel on board was diesel – a light petroleum product that spreads in thin films on water – with about 100 gallons of heavier engine oil and hydraulic fluid.

“There was a two-mile observable shard on the surface adjacent to the western side of the island. This shard, as the night progressed, was observed crossing Canadian waters,” said Michael Clark, petty officer of the Guard. American coast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls any spill under 5,000 gallons of diesel a “small”. The agency says diesel spilled in open water will evaporate or disperse naturally within days.

Hours after the fall of the Aleutian Island, whale researchers noticed at least 60 endangered southern resident killer whales – the majority of their population – near Victoria, British Columbia, swimming towards San Juan Island, one of their favorite hunting grounds. .

“We were all worried that they were doing what they usually do, which would have taken them straight into diesel,” said Seattle-based oceanographer Scott Veirs.

Before sunset, members of the orcas’ J Pod were spotted swimming just 5 miles south of the sunken vessel.

In case orcas approached the shard, response teams from the Coast Guard and other agencies remained ready overnight with “oikomi hoses.” These 8-foot-long metal pipes are lowered into the water and then hit with a hammer to ward off marine mammals.

“Apparently it’s like nails on a blackboard,” said Don Noviello of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Scott Veirs has been awake all night listening to live audio from two hydrophones collecting otherworldly underwater sounds off the west coast of San Juan Island. He hoped, for once, not to hear any orcs.

Their calls could indicate what he called a worst-case scenario: “Our most precious marine mammals are heading for a volatile toxic spill in the middle of the night when it’s hardest to keep them away.

“I’ve heard harbor seals roar at potential mates,” Veirs said. “But luckily no calls, clicks or whistles from southerners.”

On Sunday morning, a whale researcher on a ferry crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles and Victoria, British Columbia, spotted killer whales heading west towards the open Pacific and away from the island of San Juan. The researchers were able to confirm that the orcas observed were the endangered southern residents.

“That’s really good, goddamn news!!” Veirs commented on Facebook.

Veirs later said he doesn’t usually curse on social media.

He said the Aleutian Island sank near slack tide, when the often formidable currents around the San Juan Islands eased into minor eddies and eddies. For the next 6 hours, currents pushed the spill north, away from the last known position of the endangered killer whales.

“It’s incredibly lucky,” Veirs said. “If the tides had been reversed, the whales would likely have swum straight into the rising slick.”

“It’s just an incredibly dynamic region that we live in, and that’s both a blessing and a curse,” said biologist Debra Giles of the San Juan-based nonprofit Wild Orca.

Although diesel is toxic to breathe or ingest, diesel spills are generally considered less disastrous than spills of heavier petroleum products.

“The diesel will evaporate. Having a hot day helps with that,” Giles said on Sunday. “But he’s still getting off the ship as far as we know.”

San Juan residents reported pungent diesel fumes at various locations on the west side of the island, including Lime Kiln Point State Park, Saturday and Sunday.

“I had been to Lime Kiln and was only there for a few minutes when I realized I could smell the fumes and then my eyes started to sting,” resident Jeanne Hyde said by email on Sunday.

Giles said killer whales couldn’t avoid a burst of diesel.

“They don’t have a sense of smell like other mammals,” she said.

She said the toxic substances in the diesel burst can penetrate deep into the lungs and flesh of killer whales as they surface to breathe deeply between dives.

Killer whales, of course, aren’t the only marine life that can be affected by toxic pollution.

Noviello said the fish and wildlife department has not received any reports of birds behaving strangely.

A unified command of federal, local and tribal agencies said Sunday night that they plan to begin diving operations Monday morning to plug the sunken boat’s vents and begin pumping out fuel that remains on the boat.

Veirs said underwater audio from the Aleutian Island sinking includes lots of engine noises, but no implosions. He said this suggests the boat’s fuel tanks survived their descent to the pressurized depths without rupturing – a promising sign for efforts to keep the boat’s remaining pollutants out of the Salish Sea.

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