Part of a steel maritime structure tumbled into Puget Sound Wednesday next to the Lopez Island ferry terminal, causing a scenic mess of bobbing pieces.

The M/V Yakima hit the bulwark, called a “floating dolphin,” in rough waters shortly before Christmas, but the break didn’t appear until now, said Ian Sterling, spokesperson for Washington State Ferries.

WSF issued a 2 p.m. alert that service was 40 minutes late, and that travelers to Lopez may encounter extended delays due to needed terminal maintenance and potential high winds.”

The offshore dolphins, along with wing walls closer to the car ramps, are meant to help a docked ferry hold position in choppy seas, or to guide a decelerating ferry into the dock, Sterling said.

For decades, wooden devices played this role, and a hard landing would send splinters flying. Ferry docks have fixed dolphins that are vertical columns, planted in the seabeds. Floating versions are needed when channels are deep, Sterling said.

Sterling didn’t have details immediately available about which sailing wrecked the floater but said there were no reports of boat damage or injuries from mid-December. “Repairs are needed, but for now, captains can reach the island without benefit of dolphins,” he said. 

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Besides floating dolphins, Lopez Island also uses the state’s only floating wing wall, which was damaged from the same incident, and is a greater concern, Sterling said.

Both dolphins and wing walls “are considered sacrificial structures, that are designed to break before the boat does,” he said.

Katie Minter said she was traveling on the ferry Chelan between Shaw Island, Orcas Island and Anacortes on Wednesday morning, when the captain detoured to examine dock conditions at Lopez, around 11:20 a.m. Minter noticed the broken dolphin pieces, hanging by chains from a foundation that’s partly covered in ice.

“I’m glad it wasn’t the ferry taking on water, and glad that people can still get on and off Lopez Island,” she said.

San Juan Islands ferry routes are down to two vessels midweek, instead of full schedules with four boats, because of long-standing crew and boat shortages. Traffic has been light during recent winter days, and Minter said the boat paused 15 minutes at Lopez without taking on more passengers.