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‘Incredibly lucky:' Endangered orcas dodge diesel spill off San Juan Island

A fishing boat carrying 2,600 gallons of fuel sank off the western shore of San Juan Island on Saturday, releasing an oily sheen that spread for 2 miles in critical habitat for the Northwest’s endangered orcas.

Researchers called it “incredibly lucky” that the whales and the diesel apparently never crossed paths.

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

Two other salmon-fishing boats, the Marathon and the Intruder, rescued the five-person crew before the U.S. Coast Guard arrived.

The 58-foot Aleutian Isle sank to the seafloor in more than 100 feet of water about 2 p.m.

How much of the boat’s fuel spilled is unknown.

The vast majority of the fuel onboard was diesel — a lightweight petroleum product that spreads into thin sheens on water — with an estimated 100 gallons of heavier motor oil and hydraulic fluid.

“There was an observable two-mile sheen on the surface adjacent to the west side of the island. That sheen, as the night went on, was observed crossing into Canadian waters,” U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Clark said.

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

A couple hours after the Aleutian Isle went down, whale researchers noticed at least 60 endangered southern resident orcas — the majority of their population — near Victoria, British Columbia, swimming in the direction of San Juan Island, one of their most-favored hunting locations.

“We were all nervous they were going to do what they usually do, which would’ve taken them straight into the 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 ship.

In case any orcas neared the sheen, response teams from the Coast Guard and other agencies stood by overnight with “oikomi pipes.” Those 8-foot-long metal pipes are lowered into the water, then struck with a hammer to drive marine mammals away.

“Apparently, this is like nails on a chalkboard,” said Don Noviello with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Scott Veirs stayed up all night listening to live audio of two hydrophones that gather otherworldly underwater sounds off San Juan Island’s west coast. He was hoping, for once, not to hear any orcas.

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

Live video (with underwater audio) from Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island, looking west across Haro Strait to Canada.

“I heard harbor seals roar to potential mates,” Veirs said. “But luckily no calls, clicks, or whistles of the southern residents.”

Early Sunday morning, Mark Malleson with the Center for Whale Research was on a ferry crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Port Angeles and Victoria, British Columbia, when he spotted dozens of orcas heading west toward the open Pacific and away from San Juan Island. Researchers were able to confirm that the orcas observed were the endangered southern residents.

“That is really good, f'ing news!!” Veirs commented on Facebook.

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

He said the Aleutian Isle sank near slack tide — when the often-fearsome currents around the San Juan Islands calm to minor swirls and eddies. For the next six hours, currents pushed the spill to the north, away from the endangered orcas’ last known position.

“That’s incredibly lucky,” Veirs said. “If the tides had been reversed, the whales would probably have swum right into the emerging slick.”

“This is just an incredibly dynamic area that we live in, and it's both a blessing and a curse,” biologist Deborah Giles with the San Juan-based nonprofit Wild Orca said.

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

“Diesel is going to evaporate. Having a warm day helps with that,” Giles said Sunday. “But it's still coming out of the vessel as far as we know.”

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

“I had gone to Lime Kiln and wasn't there but a few minutes when I realized I was smelling the fumes, and then my eyes began to sting,” resident Jeanne Hyde said by email on Sunday.

Giles said orcas would not know to avoid a diesel sheen.

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

She said toxic substances in the diesel sheen could reach deep into orcas’ lungs and flesh when they surface to take deep breaths between dives.

Orcas, of course, are not the only sea 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 they planned to begin dive operations Monday morning to plug the sunken boat’s vents and begin pumping out fuel that remains on the boat.

Veirs said underwater audio of the Aleutian Isle sinking includes lots of motor noises, but no implosions. He said that suggests the boat’s fuel tanks survived their descent to the pressured depths without rupturing — a promising sign for efforts to keep the boat’s remaining pollutants out of the Salish Sea.

caption: Oil sheen off the west side of San Juan Island on August 13
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Oil sheen off the west side of San Juan Island on August 13
U.S. Coast Guard

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