BP Oil Spill: World's Largest Oil Skimmer Arrives in Gulf of Mexico

ABC News goes on board Taiwanese billionaire's "Whale" of a ship.

ByJeffrey Kofman and Bradley Blackburn
July 01, 2010, 4:51 PM

BOOTHVILLE, La., July 1, 2010 — -- Of the thousands of people who've come forward with big ideas for cleaning up BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one company has come forward with a giant idea it claims could collect hundreds of thousands of barrels of oily water per day and make a whale of a difference.

The company's massive skimming ship currently floating off the Louisiana shoreline is called, literally, "A Whale," and with good reason. The 1,100-foot long tanker is 10 stories tall, stamped with a blue whale on the side of its bridge, and has been specially retrofitted by its owner, TMT Shipping of Taiwan, to collect oil from the Gulf.

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Upon hearing about the oil spill, now the largest ever in the Gulf of Mexico, the owner of the ship, mysterious Taiwanese billionaire Nobu Su, ordered his engineers to cut vents in the bow and redesign the tanks inside, creating the largest skimming vessel in the world.

They claim that the monster can do in two weeks what 500 skimming boats have accomplished in two months' time.

"We can effectively skim about 300,000 to 400,000 barrels per day," said the ship's captain, Sanio Radhakrishman.

There's no question that more skimming capacity is needed. Skimming boats are still docked because of the effects of Alex, a tropical storm moving over central Mexico.

Near Barataria Bay, La., the state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, asserted his frustration with the cleanup efforts, noting that he asked President Obama a month ago for help cutting through the bureaucracy.

"What is frustrating is they just don't get it in Washington, they just don't have a sense of urgency," he said, calling on the federal government to approve his plan to build a barrier of rock pilings to keep the oil at bay. "It is ridiculous when they think rocks in the water are more dangerous than oil."

Feds Not Sure If A Whale Can Work

But the government has moved quickly to give A Whale a shot on the water. It soon will give the ship a test, but no one is sure whether the vessel will actually work.

"We're anxious to find out how effective it will be," said Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander. "But it is a very large ship that's been converted to be able to recover oil, and we'll see how it goes."

Today, ABC News went aboard A Whale and descended deep into the bowels of the ship to see firsthand how it is supposed to work.

In the Gulf, the ship will take enough water into its ballasts that the jaws are level with the surface of the water.

"The oil water will be coming through those jaws, going through those gates," said Chief Officer Moham Bhist, as he gestured toward the grilled openings cut into in the bow, about a foot tall.

The oil-water mix will be pumped through those openings into holding tanks, where simple science takes over. Like a giant decanter, the oil will float to the surface, where it will be skimmed off. The remaining water then will be pumped back into the Gulf.

While the skimming process may not remove every drop of the oil, the ship's crew says it could help cleanup efforts tremendously.

"Whatever we are taking in, that is more dirty as compared to what we are pumping out," said Bhist.

Still, it's never been tried before with a ship of this size. It's a high-cost, high-stakes experiment, and Su, the owner of the ship, simply decided to do it on a whim. He retrofitted the tanker and sent it to the Gulf on his own dime. The ship sailed to the Gulf with no prior permission from BP or the Coast Guard to help in the cleanup effort.

Nobu largely was unknown out of shipping circles, and the crew offered little explanation as to his motivation.

"He's a great guy," offered Radhakrishnan.

With so much oil in the Gulf and so much pressure to clean it up, federal officials certainly hope that his idea will work.

"We have high hopes for anything that can be effective down there," said Adm. Allen.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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