The Solar Pioneer protest barge, which dropped concrete blocks onto a popular local diving site without clearing it with divers first.
The Solar Pioneer protest barge, which is protesting Shell Oil's Polar Pioneer in Elliott Bay. It turns out the barge moored over a popular local diving park without clearing it with the divers first. Courtesy of Kelly Mears

On Wednesday, the Solar Pioneer—the Polar Pioneer protest barge floating in Elliott Bay—got a call from the Seattle Police Department. According to barge operator John Sellers, a Harbor Patrol sergeant told him that the barge's moorage permit from Saturday had expired, and Sellers' crew could see an enforcement action in 72 hours.

"There's no ultimatum," SPD spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb clarified. "This is just a 'You might be cited if this hasn't been moved in three days.' This was not a guarantee of enforcement."

The Solar Pioneer already ran into a snag with a Coast Guard inspection, which found a number of safety problems on the barge. (These are in the process of being fixed.) Local divers also found some slight damage to Cove 2, the popular diving park below the Solar Pioneer, created when the barge dropped concrete blocks to anchor. The same area is also known as giant Pacific octopus habitat, a fact that sent Seattleites into a concern-frenzy after a teenager from Maple Valley got into a wrestling match with one 80-pound cephalopod there in 2012, dragged it to the surface, and ate it for dinner.

Now Sellers and the divers are working together to come up with a plan to remove the mooring cables from some of the diving features underwater.

And before you get too excited about the irony of an environmentalist barge mucking up an underwater dive park: Divers actually found very little damage to the park after all. If the barge had simply ripped up the cables without talking to the divers, that would have been another story, according to Global Underwater Explorers Seattle (GUE Seattle) president Koos du Preez.

Still life captured by divers: A cable from the Solar Pioneer, anemone.
Still life captured by divers: A cable from the Solar Pioneer, anemone. Alex Adolfi and Mike Bearda

"The evaluation from after the dive is that there's actually not significant damage to the area," du Preez said. "The cables are wrapped around a bunch of pilings, and structures, and dive features. But if they leave the cables we can untangle them."

Sellers told The Stranger earlier in the week that the Solar Pioneer's goal is to stay in Elliott Bay for as long as the Polar Pioneer, Shell's Arctic drilling rig, does. On Monday, the city issued a notice of violation against the port, Foss and Shell, warning them that keeping Arctic drilling equipment in Terminal 5 breaches the space's land use permit. So far, the SPD has not taken any enforcement action against Shell.

Whitcomb, the SPD spokesperson, made it extra clear that the SPD has not yet enforced anything against the Solar Pioneer, either. "It's just that that permit had expired," he said. "And since the permit expired, complaints were brought to our attention. This is not an instance of SPD looking for strict enforcement."

Heres one of the concrete blocks dropped on Cove 2.
Here's one of the concrete blocks dropped on Cove 2. Alex Adolfi and Mike Bearda

But what about the other complaints—specifically, hundreds of them packed into brightly-colored kayaks for hours on Saturday—lodged against the Polar Pioneer, which is also in violation of its permit, according to the city?

"I know that the city is working on that as a separate process," Whitcomb said. "And it's a very fair question."

UPDATE: Looks like SPD's decided to hold off on that 72-hour check-in thing. Here's Whitcomb: "We are a concerned public agency. The concerns raised to us include the impact on the fragile marine ecosystem, the fact that it might be blocking water traffic, and first and foremost general safety issues with lack of lighting. That said, we'll continue to monitor it. There will be no 72-hour check-in. I want to be absolutely clear, nobody's going to check back in within 72 hours to take enforcement. However, we will continue to monitor and have further conversations with our partners, including the Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources."