The Saga of the Sinking and Raising of the

 Irving Whale!

 On Tuesday, September 8, 1970, the front page headline of The Chronicle-Herald, Halifax, Nova Scotia daily newspaper, read: "Oil Barge Goes Down in Gulf With Cargo" The barge was the Irving Whale which had sunk in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off the coast of Prince Edward Island the night before. The cargo was 4,297 tons of Bunker C fuel oil. Media coverage of the accident continued for several days and was closely followed by Robert Greene, a sales representative for a food wholesaling company. He was alarmed at owners of the barge, Irving Oil Company of Saint John, New Brunswick, appeared reluctant to take responsibility for the sinking or the cargo trapped in the barge. The possibility of pollution was great and would be disastrous for fishing and other industries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Robert felt that the company should take responsibility for the fuel oil and prevent a pollution problem. He was a customer of Irving gasoline stations and the company's lack of social sensitivity troubled him. As a protest, he returned his Irving Oil credit card with a note expressing his concern. The return of the card and the note were not acknowledged. For the next twenty seven years, Robert followed the coverage of the sinking, the pollution that occurred, and the efforts of raise the barge.

The Sinking The Irving Oil Company built the Irving Whale in 1966 as a supply barge to service coastal areas of the Atlantic Canada. The barge was 82.3 meters long, 17.7 meters wide, and 5 meters deep, about the size of a hockey rink. On Saturday, September 5, 1970, at 8:45 AM the Irving Whale left Halifax harbor on its way to Bathhurst, New Brunswick. Witnesses stated that the barge was riding low in the water under the weight of 4,297 tons (4,773,967 litres, see Table 1) of Bunker C fuel oil. It was unmanned and being towed by the Irving Maple, a tug captained by John Anstey.

The Irving Whale made good time traveling at about 8 knots and reached the Canso Causeway at approximately 1:00 PM Sunday. The remainder of its trip would take it north around the eastern edge of PEI and into an area notorious for sudden storms and rough seas. Captain Anstey reached this area in the early morning of September 7 where he reported winds gusting at 32 knots and choppy seas.

Around 7 AM that morning Anstey radioed Halifax to report a vibration on the towrope probably being caused by the rough weather. He decided to increase the length of the tow on the Irving Whale from 321 metres to 482 metres. This decision was made because of concern that the stormy seas might bring the barge too close to the Irving Maple and endanger the crew. Immediately after lengthening the tow, the Irving Whale's stern submerged and the ship assumed a 45 degree angle. For almost four hours Anstey sent continuous reports to Halifax updating the Coast Guard of the slowly sinking barge. Finally, at 10:23 AM on September 7, 60 kilometres (37.5 miles) north of PEI, the Irving Whale sank in 67 meters of water. It was still attached to the Irving Maple by the towrope Captain Anstey had refused to disconnect. The seabed where the barge sank was sandy with few rocks or debris and it was believed little damage had been sustained. The sinking of the Irving Whale represented one more oil spill in a list of incidents in and around Canadian waters.

After the Sinking Public interest in the Irving Whale had faded by the late 1970's as other events occupied newspaper headlines. The barge continued to sit at the bottom of the Gulf of St. Lawrence slowly leaking Bunker C oil at a rate of 80 litres a day. Continuous Coast Guard surveillance of the site along with reports from passing vessels recorded any sightings of oil in the area. All the while behind the scenes government officials sought a solution to the polluting wreck. In his book, Above the Law, Paul Polango states that although there were plans to raise the Irving Whale in the mid-seventies, none were technologically sound enough to guarantee a safe clean up.

The Irving Whale remained on the St. Lawrence seabed until a combination of events rekindled public interest in the barge. In 1989 the supertanker Kiriki broke up north of the Canary Islands leaking a devastating 79,800 tons of oil that reached as far as Morocco. In that same year the Exxon Valdez leaked 42,000 tons of Bunker C when it ran aground just off Alaska. This well-publicized event resulted in the pollution of more than 3,600 kmē of shoreline and the deaths of thousands of seabirds and other animals. The Kiriki and Exxon Valdez incidents brought the issue of oil pollution to the forefront of public attention again.

The Raising of the Irving Whale |back