Robson Bight salvage: mission accomplished – May 19th 2009

The term “Mission Accomplished” has achieved such a tawdry reputation in recent times that one has to be hesitant about using it.  However, occasionally it is appropriate, and well deserved.  We are happy to report that such is the case for the Robson Bight salvage operation.   By 3pm today, the tanker truck laden with 10,000 litres of toxic diesel fuel had been lifted from the murky depths below Robson Bight and safely deposited on the attendant operations barge.  The threat is no more… finis… mission accomplished!

The previous two days had been spent waiting, at times with great hope, and at times with frustration and real worry.  Sunday morning was spent deploying and testing the great yellow metal box within which the tanker truck was to be housed during its journey to the surface.  Everything went well, and both crew and officials were reportedly very pleased with the progress that had been made.  The scene was set for the final lift, but the weather forecast was poor, and a decision was made to postpone it to the following day. 

Almost coincidental with the decision to postpone the final lift, a maneuver to adjust the orientation of the fuel tanker and lift its wheels out of the muck was announced.  Over the radio being used for communications between the operations team, the exchange went something like “we’re not going to lift the truck today, but we’re going to move it”.  To listeners worried about the possibly fragile state of the tanker after being unseen for nearly 2 years, the laconic remark came as a shock, provoking immediate recall of the “we’re going to stir the tanks” comment that headed the Apollo 13 moon mission into disaster and heroism.

As things turned out, the currents 350m below Robson Bight were too strong to allow the maneuver on Sunday, so it was accomplished on Monday morning.  The reports at first were that everything had gone well, and the tanker truck was now sitting in perfect position for the lift.  Then, in the space of a moment, everything changed.  The calm scene on the operations barge became suddenly energetic as numerous people rushed around tossing pieces and then bales of absorbent cloth into the water, and the little oil spill cleanup contingency operation swung into high gear, with booms being dragged between pairs of vessels that moved back & forth through the area around the operations barge. It was obvious that something unexpected had happened, and that an oil spill cleanup operation was underway.  A couple of hours later, after an ROV inspection of the tanker truck, and no visible sign of a spreading oil spill, it was concluded that what had happened was a “burp” from the tanker as it was moved, and not a breach of its shell.  As darkness fell, the prospect of disaster had diminished, and (most of) the crew slept well.

Tuesday (this) morning dawned perfectly, with a flat ocean and a hint of sunshine to come.  The crew went to work immediately, and by 9am the great yellow metal box intended to house the tanker and contain a spill of diesel if this happened on the way to the surface, was already below water.  Several hours followed during which the ROV positioned the box around the tanker and secured it inside.  A little before 1pm, the lift began, accompanied by radio borne expressions like “up easy”, “stop” “all stop” “easy” “a little faster”, until around 1:40pm  the lift was stopped and divers entered the water for a close inspection of the box and tanker.  The inspection completed, apparently without any sign of trouble, the lift continued; a few minutes later the yellow roof of the box at last came into view.  It took a full half hour of additional inspection and maneuvering before the decision was made to lift the box onto the deck of the attendant barge.  By 3pm the great yellow box and its deadly cargo was secure on the barge.  Not a drop of diesel had entered the water… danger averted, mission complete. 

Everyone involved in this saga deserves sincere thanks, congratulations, and applause.  It’s a long list.  We especially wish to acknowledge the tireless energy of the NGOs, led by Soinula’s Living Oceans Society and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, who convinced governments to act.  The Namgis First Nation, Village of Alert Bay and Mount Waddington Regional District added persuasive voices.  Once the decision had been made, the practical focus of British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment, led by Randy Alexander, got the salvage effort underway.  The Dutch company Mammoet Salvage, along with its Seattle partner Global Diving, performed their roles splendidly. 

A couple of final whale notes:  On Sunday, a group of transient orcas headed west in Johnstone Strait, passing just outside the salvage scene.  They turned out to be the T18s, the same group of orcas that had been sighted nearby on August 20th 2007, the exact date of the barge accident in Robson Bight.   And yesterday, amidst the anxiety of the salvage operation, a report came in of an entangled humpback whale in a nearby inlet.  Crews from DFO and Straitwatch immediately headed to the scene, and found a young humpback, perhaps 2 years old, seriously entangled in more than a dozen trap lines.  Eventually, and very carefully, the lines were cut and the whale swam free.  What a day that was, and what a week this has been!

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