Cleanup crews in Alaska renewed efforts to round up dead birds near an Aleutian Islands oil spill yesterday, as response crews spotted a disturbing increase in wildlife preying...

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Cleanup crews in Alaska renewed efforts to round up dead birds near an Aleutian Islands oil spill yesterday, as response crews spotted a disturbing increase in wildlife preying on the carcasses.

Meanwhile, commercial divers found and retrieved the black-box recorder from a Coast Guard helicopter that crashed while trying to rescue crew members from the Malaysian-flagged cargo carrier the Selendang Ayu, which broke in two in a storm Dec. 8. Six members of the ship’s crew disappeared in the frigid Bering Sea after that crash.

A break in the weather yesterday allowed wildlife experts responding to the spill to spend more time assessing damage to animals. They more than doubled to 86 the number of dead seabirds removed from bays on the west side of Unalaska Island and hope that will prevent oil from working its way further up the food chain.

The crews “have seen some heavy scavenging, which means eagles, ravens, gulls and foxes are eating the carcasses and could be secondarily oiled by ingesting the oil or getting it on their fur or feathers,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis.

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Video from boat captain

Dave Magone, captain of the salvage tug The Redeemer, took this video in mid-December when his crew was hired to help clean up beaches splattered with oil from the crippled Malaysian-flagged cargo carrier the Selendang Ayu.

The first half shows the freighter, split in two before the bow was almost completely buried by a second storm just before Christmas.

The second half shows his crew trying to stretch protective boom across estuaries to prevent more oil from spreading.

See the video

Salvage workers yesterday also continued using blow torches to cut away obstacles from the stern of the ship to make it easier for helicopters to eventually start draining whatever oil remains in tanks below. That oil work could begin today.

The Selendang Ayu was ferrying soybeans from Tacoma to China when the crew shut down the engines for repairs while sailing off the Aleutian chain. The ship drifted for nearly two days before running aground and breaking up, prompting a rescue attempt by a Coast Guard helicopter. A Jayhawk helicopter crashed carrying 10 people, but only the four wearing survival suits — three Coast Guard members and one ship’s crewman — were found and rescued.

Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board investigators hope data from the flight recorder will help them understand what led to the crash.

In the three weeks since, much of the 424,000 gallons of bunker fuel and 18,000 gallons of diesel the ship carried is believed to have leaked from the two halves of the vessel, soiling miles of beach in an isolated portion of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Cleanup workers have seen at least 643 birds with oil on them since the freighter broke apart, but it’s too soon to say how many of them are dead or dying. One sea otter is known to have died but up to 10 harbor seals have been seen with small amounts of oil on them. Wildlife officials want to track the seals to monitor their response but are unlikely to attempt to capture and treat them.

Oil causes less of a physiological impact to harbor seals than sea otters, because the larger mammals molt, essentially shedding their skin.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or