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Video from Shell divers reveals no damage to ship from drifting

Lisa Demer
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss
The Noble Discoverer, a 571-foot drill ship, was towed away from land after drifting Saturday, July 14, 2012, near Dutch Harbor.
Photo by Kristjan Laxfoss

A Shell drilling ship that dragged anchor Saturday in Dutch Harbor showed no evidence of damage or grounding, according to images transmitted to the vessel from a dive team, but questions remain about what happened and how to prevent it, the Coast Guard said Tuesday.

Divers went into the water Monday evening, and two Coast Guard investigators were on board monitoring the video feed as it was being transmitted to the Noble Discoverer, Lt. Jim Fothergill said. The video was recorded for further review, he said.

The investigators also reviewed video captured Saturday night with a remotely operated vehicle and took statements from the crew, he said.

"There's no physical evidence that they grounded," Fothergill said. "That's only to say that if they did ground, it was a soft grounding."

The Coast Guard review supports Shell's account of the near-miss, when the 571-foot driller slipped its anchor and stopped close to shore in Unalaska Bay. The investigation so far doesn't back an assertion by a Dutch Harbor resident that the ship was moving closer to shore for a couple of hours, much longer than the 30 minutes attested to by Shell, the lieutenant said.

"All the evidence that we have suggests they started dragging at ... 5:18 p.m. Fothergill said. "That's based on the ship's log, the witnesses on the ship, the watch on the ship and GPS tracking."

TUGBOAT PEELED AWAY

Still, environmental groups have harshly criticized Shell Oil Co. for the incident, saying it raises questions about the company's ability to operate safely once it begins drilling in the Arctic, with its fragile ecosystem and harsh weather.

At the least, an incident "in a protected harbor is pretty embarrassing," said Greenpeace spokesman Joe Smyth. He spoke from aboard the Esperanza, a Greenpeace vessel. It was near the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea and soon will sail north to study the seascape before this summer's drilling begins. At various spots, Greenpeace researchers are descending to the sea bottom in a small two-person research submarine. No one has studied the marine life and canyons near Barrow and the Shell drilling site in the Chukchi with a research sub before, Smyth said.

The Discoverer's destination also is the Chukchi, where Shell plans to use the refurbished former log carrier to drill three exploratory wells this summer on its Burger prospect. A second drilling rig, the Kulluk, is also in Dutch Harbor and destined for the Beaufort Sea, where Shell plans to drill two exploratory wells. Greenpeace is under court order to stay at least 1 kilometer away from Shell's vessels.

Shell executives say they are concerned about the mishap, too. The company, along with the ship's owner and operator, Noble Corp., is conducting its own investigation.

A Shell tugboat, the Lauren Foss, had been stationed near the Discoverer as it was anchored but on Saturday was diverted to assist with the Kulluk, the Coast Guard said. It took a few minutes for the Lauren Foss to get to the Discoverer and get a line on to tow it to deeper water.

In its investigation, the Coast Guard is focusing on the anchor and whether it was ideal for the ship and the sandy bottom of Unalaska Bay. The agency wants to determine if changes in procedures could prevent similar incidents, Fothergill said. Its investigation may take weeks if not months.

It's not uncommon for ships to drag anchor in the windy Aleutians, and the incident doesn't necessarily mean someone made a mistake, Fothergill said.

"These things happen," he said.

ELECTRONIC SHIP TRACKING

Through global positioning system tracking, crews can see where their ship is in relation to others along with information such as the course, speed and name of nearby ships, according to Bill Benning, chief technical officer for the Juneau-based Marine Exchange of Alaska. The non-profit organization collects the data for subscribers so that fishing companies and state agencies can track their vessels from afar.

The GPS tracking matches Shell's account of when the ship slipped anchor, the Coast Guard said.

"We're just pleased that the divers confirmed what we thought we saw in the images from the ROV (remotely operated vehicle), and that was, first of all, no damage and no abrasions consistent with a grounding," Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said.

James Mason said he's not convinced. He runs an online news service for Dutch Harbor and was on the scene Saturday when the Discoverer drifted toward shore. Time stamps on digital photos he took suggest the incident started earlier, and he believes he observed the ship slowly moving closer to shore long before that.

"I set my cameras according to the U.S. Naval Observatory clock," he said. "At 5:13 in my photo, the Shell people are already running down the beach" toward the Discoverer.

Some mariners say it can be easy to mistake a ship at anchor oscillating back and forth for one dragging anchor. It's almost like a ship is tugging against a rubber band, then pulled back, said Bill Gillespie, a marine pilot based in Dutch Harbor who guided the Discoverer into Unalaska Bay a week before the grounding.

"It will make a ship look like it is floating to shore," he said.

The Coast Guard says the mishap could have been much worse.

"There's no damage, no pollution and no injuries," Fothergill said.

After the near-miss, the Lauren Foss tugboat was tied up to the Discoverer for quick action in case it slipped anchor again.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

Photos: Shell rig drifts near Dutch Harbor
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News