by Alex DeMarban
With Royal Dutch Shell possibly on the eve of exploring for oil off Alaska's Arctic coasts -- and other companies waiting in the wings -- the U.S. Coast Guard plans an oil-spill response drill in the fragile region next week.
The exercise will be part of the agency's effort to beef up its presence in the largely untouched Arctic Ocean, as ship traffic rises due in part to increased industrial interests in potential undersea riches.
The guardian of the nation's high seas recently stationed two MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters and associated personnel in Barrow, a city of 4,200 where polar bears saunter ashore in search of food and Eskimo whalers in small boats kill bowhead whales as large as semi-trucks.
The choppers bring the Coast Guard 900 miles closer to the region, said Petty officer David Mosley, a Coast Guard spokesman. That's the distance to the nearest Coast Guard base, on Kodiak Island in southern Alaska. The helicopters will be available to help with rescues of any stripe, whether that's plucking dying passengers from adventure-tourism ships or snagging whalers trapped on breakaway sheets of ice.