Captain Kevin Bell, like others who were on the scene of the monster Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, can still remember it all in haunting detail, 15 years later: the pungent smell, the dead sea otters coated in oil, the thousands of dead birds scooped from the slick black waters and stuffed into plastic garbage bags on the decks of his research vessel.
Horrible and chaotic as it was during the first days after that spill, Bell and his colleagues had one thing going for them then that is eluding those trying to respond to the worst spill in Alaska since the Valdez spilled 4.2 milllion liters of oil in the spring of 1989: They could get there.
As Bell, a ship operator for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, prepared to sail his 36.5m vessel, the Tiglax, for the treacherous site of the latest spill near the Aleutian islands in the Bering Sea, one of the most punishing oceans on the planet, he was not optimistic that he could ferry biologists close enough to truly assess the impact of the spill.
"Basically, this is going to be almost impossible," he said.
The situation, the captain said on Sunday, is a mess from top to bottom. Six crew members from a soybean freighter headed from Seattle to China that went aground near the Aleutian island of Unalaska last Wednesday are missing and presumed dead. An unknown amount of the wrecked ship's 1.8 million liters of viscous fuel, which is much harder to break down in the winter cold, may be leaking into one of the world's most remote and ecologically rich wildlife refuges.
The wreck comes at a time when the Bering Sea is at its most restless, with gargantuan swells and gale force winds. And there is precious little daylight. Where the ship broke apart, about 1,200km southwest of Anchorage, endangered or threatened species like sea lions and otters share a delicate habitat with a huge variety of seabirds and waterfowl.
"There are really no words to describe how dangerous this is," Bell, 50, said in a telephone interview from Homer, in Southwest Alaska, where he was readying his vessel for the research mission to the Aleutians.
It is a route he has sailed for 17 years and a trip that, in ideal weather conditions, would take him about three days.
The six missing crew members were lost after a Coast Guard helicopter crashed into the sea after rescuing them from the wreck. The Coast Guard rescuers and one rescued crew member survived the crash. About 20 other crew members survived.
A helicopter with a three-person salvage team took off from nearby Dutch Harbor on Sunday afternoon to undertake the short flight to the 225m-long Selendang Ayu. For days the Coast Guard had wanted to get a team on the vessel to determine how much of the 1.8 million liters of bunker oil and 79,500l of diesel fuel had leaked into the sea.
The salvage team assessed only the stern section of the freighter because it was too difficult to get onto the bow, said Petty Officer Amy Thomas. The team found that the ship's No. 2 hold, which had contained about 150,000l of heavy bunker oil, was breached. When the ship split in half, it was over the No. 2 hold. The Coast Guard has said previously the No. 2 hold contained 530,000 liters of fuel.
``It is completely open to the sea,'' said Petty Officer Amy Thomas.
The No. 3 hold, with an undetermined amount of oil in it, was leaking. The No. 4 hold appeared to be intact. However, three other holds that contained soybeans were breached and ``oozing soybeans,'' she said.