Diver had been harvesting eelgrass for mill site cleanup project

PORT GAMBLEPope Resources employees are “badly shaken” by the death Oct. 19 of a diver harvesting eelgrass for the mill site cleanup. Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe members were joining for a prayer circle on the beach at Point Julia, across the bay from the mill site, at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 20.

“Our company and all the contractors and engineers are badly shaken,” Olympic Property Group president Jon Rose said. “Everyone around the project is shaken up by the accident and feeling the loss for the family.”

The Kitsap County Coroner’s office identified the diver on Oct. 21 as Jonathan T. Ipock, 28, of Apollo Beach, Florida. Ipock was found dead after a several-hour search — first by his fellow divers, then by the Coast Guard, Kitsap County Sheriff’s Department personnel, and private residents.

Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ken Dickinson said Ipock was one of three divers diving near the old mill site. When two of the divers came up but Ipock didn’t, the two searched unsuccessfully for him. They called 911 at 5:30 p.m., Dickinson said.

Rose said the divers work for a private company hired by Pope Resources engineers. He said the company had worked for Pope in the past. The divers had been harvesting eelgrass for a few days and were 25 percent done with the work, Rose said. Dickinson said it was his understanding that Ipock had made “a couple of dives” that day.

Dickinson said the sheriff’s department searched “for a couple of hours,” and then called in its volunteer search-and-rescue dive team. Search-and-rescue divers found Ipock’s body between 9 and 9:30 p.m., 60 feet offshore at a depth of 20 feet.

Rose said he understood that the other divers didn’t see debris that Ipock could have gotten snagged on, and “there wasn’t a current at the time.”

“Regardless of the cause, everyone around the project is shaken up by the accident and feeling the loss for the family,” he said. “The rescue team — my understanding is they are unpaid volunteers — they and the Sheriff’s Department did an amazing job of coordinating the rescue. It was real impressive.”

Pope & Talbot, a forerunner of Pope Resources, established a mill at Port Gamble — the S’Klallam people knew it as Teekalet — in 1853. The mill operated until 1995.

In a plan approved by the state Department of Ecology and funded by Pope Resources, contractors are doing a final cleanup of the shoreline and nearshore. To be removed: Approximately 6,000 creosoted pilings and overwater structures, and approximately 70,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and wood waste. A cap of sand will be placed over other wood waste areas, and eelgrass will be replanted.

Eelgrass beds provide food, shelter and protection from predators for many juvenile fish and shellfish. According to NOAA, eelgrass also filters polluted runoff and absorbs nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and protects shorelines from erosion by absorbing wave energy.

The Port Gamble S’Klallam people, who know all too well the rewards and risks of the marine environment, gathered at Point Julia, across the bay from the mill site, on Oct. 20 and prayed for the safety of those on the water.

“We feel the impact in our small community here,” Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan said. “We felt it important for our leadership to pull together some spiritual leaders to have a blessing for the site and for the people, to lift them up and put them in God’s hands.”