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PHOTOS: Shell Oil's Arctic Challenger, then and now

The Arctic Challenger was occupied by Caspian terns while docked in Southern California in 2007.
John Potter / California DFG
Deck of Arctic Challenger, which was occupied by Caspian terns and covered in bird feces while docked in 2007.
Nancy Frost / California DFG
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
The Arctic Challenger, a barge Royal Dutch Shell is renovating to use in Arctic drilling operations.
Courtesy Shell Oil
Alaska Dispatch

Royal Dutch Shell's quest to open the U.S. Arctic Ocean to oil drilling, an undertaking that's involved years of preparation and cost more than $4.5 billion, hinges on an old icebreaking barge that sat idle so long it literally went to the birds.

The Arctic Challenger, the troubled centerpiece of Shell's oil-spill response plan, features a remarkable past -- once glorious and, well, not so glorious.

At one point, hundreds of Caspian terns, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, ravens, crows and even an owl turned the 300-foot barge into a giant's bird nest, coating the deck with bird dung and other gunk. That was in California's Long Beach Harbor in 2007, where the downtrodden vessel became a bit of a media celebrity as wildlife regulators raced to save the protected terns and their chicks.

That avian invasion was an ignoble downturn to a celebrated career that began in 1976, when the Arctic Challenger hammered through sea ice off the shores of Alaska and paved the way for the development of the nation's largest oil field.

READ MORE: Arctic drilling: Shell's spill-containment barge was once for the birds