Five months after it left its home harbor to fight the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Maine Responder is heading back.

The 208-foot oil skimmer sailed out of Portland in early May, bound for the Gulf. With the spill declared dead on Sept. 19, the Maine Responder steered for home two days later. It is expected to arrive in Portland Harbor on Tuesday morning, weather permitting.

“Everybody is in a great mood,” said Karen Griffin of Portland, who is married to a crew member.

She said she got a report Thursday morning from her husband, James Griffin, who climbed up to the crow’s nest to make a cell phone call as the ship passed the Florida Keys.

Griffin is among more than a half-dozen Mainers who have been on the Maine Responder since May. Normally the chief mate, he was filling in for Capt. David Ward of Scarborough when The Portland Press Herald visited the ship in June.

At the time, the Maine Responder was skimming up oil a few miles from where the Deep Water Horizon rig exploded April 20 as it drilled 2½ miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Maine Responder’s crew members were among the first Mainers to respond to the disaster, and now they’re among the last to return home.

The oil rig explosion killed 11 people, spilled hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf and threw thousands of people in the tourism, fishing and oil industries out of work. The ecological and economic effects are still being calculated.

Mainers who were sent to the region by state agencies and environmental disaster response companies trickled back after the spill was contained in mid-July. The last of four spill response teams sent by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection returned Sept. 4, said Peter Blanchard, an oil and hazardous material specialist with the DEP.

Blanchard was one of the 20 DEP employees who brought down skimmer boats, monitored St. Andrews Bay in Florida and provided training. “It was a really valuable experience to be faced with a large-scale spill like that,” he said.

Most of the Coast Guard personnel from Sector Northern New England in South Portland are back. Capt. Jim McPherson returned on Aug. 3 after 62 days in the Gulf. Cmdr. Paul Wolf, a reservist, is back at his job as a criminal investigator in Portland with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“It was great to see people at their best, trying their hardest,” Wolf said of the spill response.

Not everyone came back with the same sense of accomplishment. Chip Pearson, global alliance manager for Auburn-based Packgen, spent a frustrating week in the Gulf trying to drum up interest in his company’s oil containment booms. BP expressed interest at one point, and the company made requested changes in the boom design. In the end, Packgen never sold its booms to BP.

“We finally got them approved in July, at the same time they capped the well,” said Pearson.

Still in the Gulf is a University of Southern Maine expedition aboard the research vessel Odyssey. Faculty members and students are testing whales and fish for the effects of the oil and other contaminants, such as dispersants that were used to clean up the spill.

John Wise, a USM professor of toxicology and molecular epidemiology who is leading the work, said researchers were shipping the first 50 cell samples, mainly from sperm whales, back to Portland.

They have had many opportunities to interact with the people who live in the region, Wise said. “One of the biggest eye-openers for us is how big a deal the spill is down here. They are looking for straight talk, hoping things are getting better,” he said.

Griffin, on the Maine Responder, said crew members had a tough time in the past month, when they were standing by and anchored offshore. Then, the ship was decontaminated and they were cleared for return.

“They are doing really well,” Griffin said of his shipmates.


Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]