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Photos: Shell's drillship heads to Asia

Members from the Coast Guard cutter Roanoke Island and Coast Guard inspectors oversee loading operations of the Noble Discoverer onto the heavy lift ship Xiang Yun Kou in Seward, Alaska.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Members from the Coast Guard cutter Roanoke Island and Coast Guard inspectors oversee loading operations of the Noble Discoverer onto the heavy lift ship Xiang Yun Kou in Seward, Alaska.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Members from the Coast Guard cutter Roanoke Island and Coast Guard inspectors oversee loading operations of the Noble Discoverer onto the heavy lift ship Xiang Yun Kou in Seward, Alaska.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Members from the Coast Guard cutter Roanoke Island and Coast Guard inspectors oversee the heavy lift vessel Xiang Yun Kou prior to the drill ship Noble Discoverer in Seward, Alaska.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
The 708-foot-long Xiang Yun Kou arrived in Seward, Alaska on Feb. 28, 2013, to dry-haul the Noble Discoverer to port in Asia. Pictured in the foreground is the Coast Guard cutter Mustang.
Jackie Wilde photo
Ben Anderson

The Noble Discoverer, the massive drillship that is an integral part of Royal Dutch Shell's Arctic oil drilling ambitions, is getting a lift to Asia. On Saturday, the ship was loaded onto the cargo deck of another vessel, the 708-foot Chinese-flagged heavy lift ship Xiang Yun Kou, which arrived in Resurrection Bay -- visible from the Southcentral Alaska community of Seward -- on Thursday.

By Saturday, under the watchful eye of the Coast Guard, the Xiang Yun Kou began lowering itself into the water, until its cargo deck was completely submerged, allowing for the more than 500-foot-long Noble Discoverer to be loaded aboard. Then, the lift ship began releasing water and the Noble Discoverer was lifted into the air, and out of the water for the first time in months.

The Noble Discoverer's time in Alaska has been mostly star-crossed: last July, it lost anchor near the Aleutian community of Unalaska and drifted close to shore. Then, after taking a trip to the Arctic to begin exploratory drilling, it suffered a backfiring incident in the same community in November. Later that month, en route to a shipyard in Washington for winter maintenance, the ship -- operated by contractor Noble Corp -- suffered an issue with its propulsion system that necessitated a tow to Seward. There, Coast Guard inspectors boarded the ship and found numerous safety and pollution issues that could lead to legal action against Noble.

But Saturday's operation appears to have gone off smoothly. According to Coast Guard spokesman David Mosely, Coast Guard inspectors were on hand to watch the lowering and raising of the Xiang Yun Kou and the loading of the Noble Discoverer onto its 583-foot-long deck. It's a lengthy process, and the light was fading by the time the Noble Discoverer's hull was out of the water. Mosely said that the Coast Guard was there simply to ensure that the process would be completed safely and efficiently.

"This type of procedure isn't unusual for (the Xiang Yun Kou)," Mosely said. "It's what this ship was designed for. I think what's more unusual is this type of operation in Alaska."

According to the Seward City News, the Noble Discoverer will now be welded into place for its long trek to Asia. As of Wednesday afternoon, the ship remained in the waters of Resurrection Bay, according to vessel tracking website marinetraffic.com, and it wasn't clear when it might begin the next step of its journey. A Shell spokesman said he didn't have the particulars of the journey, and Noble did not return a request for comment on Wednesday. 

In the meantime, Shell's other primary drill rig, the conical Kulluk, arrived in Dutch Harbor earlier this week for a dry-haul of its own to Asia, on the Xiang Yun Kou's sister vessel, the Xiang Rui Kou. The Kulluk was finally towed from the sheltered waters of Kiliuda Bay on Kodiak Island after its New Year's Eve grounding on the shores of another island in the Gulf of Alaska. Between the problems that have plagued the Noble Discoverer and the Kulluk, Shell announced last week that it would suspend operations for its 2013 drilling season.

Mosely said that the Xiang Rui Kou must announce its intent to enter Alaska waters within 96 hours of its arrival. According to Marine Traffic, the ship has an estimated time of arrival into Dutch Harbor on March 18.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com