Waves lash at the sides of the Shell* drilling rig Kulluk, which ran aground off the rocky southern coast of Alaska on New Year's Eve in a violent storm.
The rig, seen above Tuesday afternoon, was "stable," with no signs of spilled oil products, authorities said. But continued high winds and savage seas hampered efforts to secure the vessel and the 150,000 gallons (568,000 liters) of diesel fuel and lubricants on board. The Kulluk came to rest just east of Sitkalidak Island (map), an uninhabited but ecologically and culturally rich site north of Ocean Bay, after a four-day odyssey, during which it broke free of its tow ships and its 18-member crew had to be rescued by helicopter.
The U.S. Coast Guard, state, local, and industry officials have joined in an effort involving nearly 600 people to gain control of the rig, one of two that Shell used for its landmark Arctic oil-drilling effort last summer. "This must be considered one of the largest marine-response efforts conducted in Alaska in many years," said Steve Russell, of Alaska's Department of Environmental Conservation.
The 266-foot (81-meter) rig now is beached off one of the larger islands in the Kodiak archipelago, a land of forest, glaciers, and streams about 300 miles (482 kilometers) south of Anchorage. The American Land Conservancy says that Sitkalidak Island's highly irregular coastline traps abundant food sources upwelling from the central Gulf of Alaska, attracting large numbers of seabirds and marine mammals. The largest flock of common murres ever recorded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was in Sitkalidak Strait, which separates the island from Kodiak. Sitkalidak also has 16 wild salmon rivers and archaeological sites tied to the Alutiiq native peoples dating back more than 7,000 years.
Shell incident commander Susan Childs said Monday night that the company's wildlife management team had started to assess the potential impact of a spill, and would be dispatched to the site when the weather permitted. She said the Kulluk's fuel tanks were in the center of the vessel, encased in heavy steel. "The Kulluk is a pretty sturdy vessel," she said. "It just remains to be seen how long it's on the shoreline and how long the weather is severe."
*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains editorial autonomy.