Special Reports

Bad weather foils plans for ‘whale’ skimmer

Choppy seas have temporarily foiled attempts to see if a giant oil skimmer can be a silver bullet for cleanup efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bob Grantham, spokesman for Taiwanese shipping firm TMT, says the company’s vessel, dubbed “A Whale,” will need further testing off the coast of Louisiana.

Grantham said in an e-mail Monday that sea conditions in the Gulf over the weekend were too choppy to get definitive answers on the vessel’s capability.

Billed as the world’s largest oil skimmer, “A Whale” is supposed to be able to suck up 21 million gallons of oily water per day. The 10-story high, 300-yard tanker takes in oily water through 12 vents and the oil is separated through a series of tanks to be transferred to another vessel, while the clean water is returned to the gulf.

“A Whale’’ had initially undergone tests in a patch of water close to the wellhead over the weekend. The ship is also awaiting approval from the Environmental Protection

Agency. Grantham said testing will resume as soon as the water is calmer.

Across a wide stretch of the Gulf of Mexico, efforts to limit the damage from the oil spill have been essentially landlocked for more than a week.

Offshore oil skimming along the coasts of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi came to a stop early last week because of choppy seas brewed up by Hurricane Alex.

Now they’re stymied by a succession of smaller storms that could last well into this week. Workers are being forced to fight the oil with containment boom and cleanups after it has already reached the shore.

“We’re just lying in wait to see if we can send some people out there to do some skimming,” said Courtnee Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Command in Mobile, Ala.

Heavy rain and scattered thunderstorms are predicted throughout the region into Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Destri. The National Hurricane Center is also watching a low pressure system in the Caribbean Sea that has a low chance of becoming a tropical depression in the next two days.

If it does develop, it would more likely head toward northern Mexico or southern Texas, but it’s too early to predict its path with certainty, Destri said.

The storms have not affected drilling work on a relief well that BP says is the best chance for finally plugging the leak. The company expects drilling to be finished by mid-August.

The Miami Herald and Associated Press contributed to this report.