The marine weather forecast seemed good enough for mid or late December, when the oceangoing tug Aiviq began towing the cumbersome giant oil drilling platform Kulluk out of Dutch Harbor on the eve of the Winter Solstice:
The Kulluk left Dutch Harbor, a staging port for Shell, the afternoon of Dec. 21 under tow by the Aiviq, headed to the Seattle area for off-season maintenance. The weather forecast for the next few days was typical, even a bit tame, for winter along the Aleutian chain and into the Gulf of Alaska: Winds of 17 to 35 mph, seas of 7 to 15 feet.
“Toward Kodiak Island, there was nothing of real significance,” said Sam Albanese, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service. “It was a pretty benign forecast.”
But by the afternoon of Dec. 25, the outlook had shifted from a prediction of more gale-force winds to a near storm at sea with winds topping 50 mph, he said.
And that’s what hit the Kulluk and the Aiviq last week.
By Saturday night, the winds were near hurricane force, the Coast Guard said.
As the Kulluk headed to the Lower 48 on Thursday, the tow shackle failed between the drilling rig and its tug — Shell’s Aiviq. A second towline was attached, but later the engines on the Aiviq failed, leaving the two vessels adrift at sea. The 266-foot diameter Kulluk has no propulsion system of its own.
Another ship, the Coast Guard’s 282-foot cutter Alex Haley, was dispatched to reconnect the towline. However, 35-foot seas and 40-mph winds, coupled with the size of the vessels, caused the towline to disconnect, and the Haley retreated to Kodiak for repairs. On Sunday, the Kulluk’s 18-person crew was evacuated.
Then, after dispatching yet another ship — the Prince William Sound-based Alert tug — the Kulluk was reconnected to its tow vessels early Monday. Later Monday morning, the Aiviq tug also re-established its connection to the Kulluk about 19 miles southeast of Kodiak Island, but lost its link later in the day.
By Monday evening, the Coast Guard was planning to tow the Kulluk to safe harbor at Port Hobron on the southeast side of Kodiak Island, as well as deploy several technicians on board the Kulluk to inspect the tow lines on the rig.
As the weather worsened, the Alert tug’s crew, which was struggling to tow the Kulluk on its own, was order to separate from the rig. By 9 p.m., the Kulluk was sitting in the surf at rocky Ocean Bay, its draft having run aground.
Over night, Monday-Tuesday, the worst of the present storm seemed to play out, but there is still a large swell coming onshore at the place of the stranding.
Within two hours of the grounding, the so-called Unified Command, comprising Shell Alaska, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and Noble Drilling, held a press notification event at the expanded response headquarters, in Anchorage’s Marriot Hotel. About 250 people are involved in the Anchorage-based efforts. In a conference convened Tuesday at 2:00 local time, again at the Anchorage Marriott, it was claimed that over 500 people are currently involved in facets of the response.
As events have unfolded and been made public Tuesday, there have been several responses from the Alaska environmental community, from the head of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Ed Markey, but nothing substantive from Alaska’s U.S. Congressional delegation, who have been totally supportive of Shell’s Arctic drilling venture.
This morning Markey said “the accident revealed that ‘drilling expansion could prove disastrous for this sensitive environment.’”