Covering local news is an important part of being a member of this community, and as reporters we are often tasked with observing and reporting on events that vary widely.
During these events, we often are asked to set aside our personal opinions and perspectives and to cover the news in an unbiased and factual manner.
Most days being objective and unbiased can be an easy task. As a reporter, by simply coming into a situation with an open mind and a blank notebook we are able to research and construct a narrative that hopefully educates and informs an interested readership and the general public. But when news hits close to home, literally and figuratively, reporters sometimes find themselves having to cover stories and share information that involves people or places they know intimately.
The sinking of the Aleutian Isle on Saturday was just such a story.
I stepped into this unfolding story with intimate knowledge of the scene of the accident. The very spot where leaking diesel fuel from the sunken fishing vessel is slowly coating the surrounding shoreline and kelp beds along the west side of San Juan Island is my childhood home.
The family property located north of Sunset Point where I spent summers as a boy observing, researching and interacting with whales since the late 1970s with the Center for Whale Research, was the very spot where the vessel sank.
Reporting on the incident as a professional with decades of communications experience I watched as US Coast Guard vessels and emergency personnel descended upon the scene. Government agencies and representatives that I have worked closely with professionally for years, in some cases decades, suddenly became more than just colleagues but participants in my family’s own dilemma.
While my reporting remained professional, my observations became much more personal.
The beach that I loaded and offloaded research equipment and personnel innumerable times over the past four decades is now covered with a diesel sheen that stinks up the entire coast for miles.
A pair of oystercatchers I have fondly observed over the years raise their young along familiar rocky shorelines, innocently went about their day as a Coast Guard helicopter flew low and slow over the scene to determine the extent of the diesel sheen rising just yards from the pair of shore birds.
Returning to observe the accident scene Sunday morning, I arrived to a strong smell of diesel fuel permeating everything where so many wonderful times had been spent over the past 45 years. Now a lethargic harbor seal my father fondly named “flippy” was drifting in the shallows, surfacing for air every few minutes surrounded by an oily diesel sheen.
These scenes are not unfamiliar to me, however. During my early years as a whale researcher for the Center for Whale Research, I was deployed to Prince William Sound, Alaska on several occasions to observe the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill on orcas following the disaster.
At Sunset Point, where killer whales once frolicked for so many seemingly endless summer days of old, familiar waters will now briefly be the site of a recovery operation that will include large barges, heavy equipment and professional divers racing the clock to stop the fuel leak and recover the submerged diesel fuel before it does more harm.
And, while most days we wish the whales would return to the islands to feed and frolic, today we celebrate their absence.
So not only is this situation personal for me, but it’s also reminiscent of a much larger emergency that could befall the San Juan Islands.
We’re so lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth but while we go about our days living our lives here in the islands we all could be just one shipping accident away from disaster.