Preparing for herculean recovery of Aleutian Isle

Nearly a month later, the fuel oil vents of the Aleutian Isle are secured, but the boat remains under 200 feet of water.

While there is currently no timeline for the recovery of the vessel, the dive crew and supporting members of the dive barge and incident command remain committed to recovering the Aleutian Isle.

It began on Saturday, Aug. 13, just another beautiful summer day in the San Juan islands. The day was sunny and warm with calm seas and clear skies. Along the western shore of San Juan Island, several tribal purse seine fishing boats were actively laying their nets, harvesting schools of passing salmon on their way to rivers to spawn, a long-held tradition among many native tribes who call these waters and islands home.

Then tragedy struck.

Within minutes the Aleutian Isle, a 58-foot-long steel purse seine fishing vessel built in the 1970s, weighing 56 gross tons with a 70-ton displacement, suddenly vanished, swallowed by the sea just a few hundred yards from the shore of San Juan island.

Eyewitnesses describe hearing screams as the vessel disappeared in a matter of minutes. One minute a large steel purse seine fishing vessel was actively engaged in catching salmon, the next an empty sea where a fishing vessel used to be.

Photographs taken as the vessel disappeared in a churning rush of water and air bubbles show a single crew member helplessly watching from the seiner’s skiff as the mast and flybridge disappear into the depths. All crew members aboard were rescued, and no lives were lost.

As the vessel sank a portion of her fishing net and other items on deck were suddenly dragged down with her. The boat initially came to rest along the western edge of an underwater shelf at just over 100’ depth, precariously close to a subterranean cliff that drops hundreds of feet into the abyss. Minutes after the sinking a large freezer floated to the surface, dented and crushed by the pressure at the depths it had risen from.

For many hours the vessel lay there, with much of her fishing net still visible at the surface floating in the passing currents, the only indication a vessel was even there.

By late afternoon that Saturday a large diesel sheen appeared up the coast from the sunken vessel, winding and working its way into Mitchell Bay, Open Bay, and along the shoreline near Smuggler’s Cove. Shortly after the sinking, a US Coast Guard cutter arrived on scene to assess the situation and maintain a safety zone around the site.

Meanwhile, as the sheen drifted north, to the south a large gathering of endangered Southern Resident killer whales briefly entered the area unaware of the unfolding tragedy just a few nautical miles to the north. Fortunately, by morning the whales were reported returning to the open ocean riding an outgoing tide, just as the diesel sheen’s tendrils draped down the coast of San Juan Island where the whales had been just hours before.

Sunday, Aug. 14 the smelly diesel sheen stretched for several miles down the coast of San Juan Island, and late in the day, the first attempts to capture leaking diesel was undertaken by two TowBoat US vessels under contract with the Washington Department of Ecology.

Reports also indicate that sometime through the first night or into Sunday morning the vessel slipped from a depth of just over 100 feet to a depth of now over 200 feet. This complicates matters considerably since dive operations at such a depth are exponentially more difficult and dangerous.

Over the next several days and weeks emergency response personnel and equipment were deployed from Seattle and points beyond to the site and surrounding areas, but that story is for another day.

This story is about unsung heroes that since the accident occurred have taken up residence just over 200 feet above the fishing vessel, now resting precariously on her starboard side overhanging a deep water trench dropping to the icy depths over 700 feet below.

When Global Dive & Salvage crews arrived on scene two weeks after the vessel sank, the challenges these hardened maritime professionals were about to face was evident to all involved.

The location of the vessel precariously laying on her side is at a depth that pushes the limits of the divers, the crew and the equipment now on scene. The site itself also experiences strong and sustained tidal currents of several knots or more for many hours at a time throughout the day and night as the tide ebbs and flows.

While many early on were hopeful this operation would take only a matter of days, this hope was quickly dispelled by the sheer magnitude of the challenges the divers and crews would face. Estimates now put recovery of the vessel near the middle of September, barring any unforeseen weather or other issues.

The first challenge the crews of the salvage tugs and barges carrying heavy equipment and professional personnel faced was setting the four anchors that would hold the operation in place. After several hours of maneuvering the enormous barge and crane using large powerful tug boats, crews safely and successfully anchored the barge directly over the site of the sunken Aleutian Isle.

Then the real work began.

Professional divers skilled at deep water dives, along with their support teams began to prepare for the arduous task of removing loose fishing nets and other debris prior to even considering the task of recovering the vessel. Over the period of the next few days, an ROV was sent down on several occasions to get a better look at the scene before divers then began to make their initial descents.

Each dive lasts for several hours. However, there is only an approximately thirty-minute work window available for the diver to work before they must begin a slow, methodical ascent to a waiting decompression chamber at the surface. Divers then spend an additional several hours decompressing in the chamber before they can safely exit.

Each day for the past two weeks there has been only two windows of opportunity to dive on the wreck due to the challenging tides and currents where the vessel rests. While six individual divers are rotated into the dive operation schedule, two divers each day are called upon to make the dive. While one diver suits up and performs the dive, a second safety diver remains at the surface geared up and ready to go.

Each dive requires different equipment for the various tasks at hand. In order to make each dive successful, a close-knit team of six or more crew members work together to prepare and provide the necessary equipment and support. Each dive takes intense focus and determination. Each diver wears heavy dive gear including weight belts, metal tanks and fully enclosed metal helmets that secure around the neck of the diver.

Within days of arriving on scene the Global divers and dive crews were successful in clearing the hazardous fishing nets entangled on and around the sunken vessel. Once divers had removed enough fishing net to allow them safer access to the vessel, they then turned their attention to closing and securing the vessel’s waste oil, hydraulic, and water valves.

The next important step was to secure the vessel’s fuel vents, which have been releasing intermittent small amounts of diesel fuel into the surrounding environment ever since the sinking. Divers successfully plugged the vents less than a week after the dive and salvage crews arrived on scene and have now turned their attention to recovering the vessel.

Recovering the vessel from the depth she currently rests will be no easy matter. Collaboration between divers and the crew aboard the crane barge are key to the successful completion of this operation.

Before divers descend to depths the crane and deck crews prepare and position extremely heavy large cables that are intended to be wrapped and secured around the vessel at four points along the length of the boat. Each cable is two inches thick, weighs hundreds of pounds, and divers must carefully thread the cables underneath the vessel working in darkness at nearly eight atmospheres of pressure.

As of Sept. 8, one cable has been successfully placed, but efforts to place the second cable have not yet been successful.

Due to extremely challenging tidal currents at the location of the sunken vessel this past week, dive operations currently scheduled will depend upon the safety of the divers. If the dive team determines the tidal currents are too strong any dive attempts for that period will be scrubbed. The tidal currents can get up to 6-8 knots or more. This not only endangers divers when they are working at depth near the boat but also can potentially dislodge the divers from the safety of the dive bell as they are slowly lifted to the surface during decompression.

This is a slow and time-consuming process. While crews work diligently to retrieve the Aleutian Isle, both Southern Resident killer whales and mammal-eating Biggs killer whales have made several passes by the dive operations over the past two weeks.

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok \ Staff photo
A safety diver checks the seals on a diver’s helmet prior to entering the dive bell which carries the diver down to the site of the sunken Aleutian Isle over 200 feet below.

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok \ Staff photo A safety diver checks the seals on a diver’s helmet prior to entering the dive bell which carries the diver down to the site of the sunken Aleutian Isle over 200 feet below.