(Oil spill…photo courtesy Leon Kunke.)
If you’re a fan of shlock Japanese horror movies of the kaiju (monster) subset of the tokusatsu (special effects) genre, involving undersea monsters, you remember their typical opening with murky underwater shots, accompanied by the building of melodramatic, danger-portending music, ultimately showing something large and mysterious as it begins to stir.
Unfortunately, there are just such dangerous monsters lurking off our coast, veritable organic time bombs, waiting for their chance to spread death and destruction.
Only instead of the panic-stricken people of Tokyo, the victims of these impending scourges will mainly be the vulnerable animals that inhabit or use our coastal waters. If these âdirty bombsâ? go off once again, tens of thousands of birds and other animals could be killed, industries could be crippled, and our world famous coastal natural beauty will be scarred for years to come.
I’m referring to sunken ships like the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach, that with its load of over 400,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, was sent to the ocean’s bottom, in water 185 feet deep, 17 miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its trip to Davey Jones’ Locker, occurred on July 14th, 1953, when it collided with one of its sister ships, the Hawaiian Pilot, thanks to the egregious mistakes made by both pilots. The 468- foot, 8700- ton Luckenbach sank in 30 minutes with no loss of human life.
The Luckenback was a C3 Cargo Ship commissioned in 1943 as the Sea Robin, strangely just four months after the Hawaiian Pilot, was launched, as the U.S.S. Burleigh, from the same Pascagoula shipyard. While the U.S.S.Burleigh, had a distinguished record hauling needed supplies and men around the Pacific during the war, the Luckenbach, had to wait nearly sixty years before its name became well known. That happened in February 2002, when scientific analysis of an oil slick’s signature was connected to samples taken from dead oil-fouled birds gathered from the previous ten years.
Until that connection was made, nearly every winter from 1991 on, with some as far back as 1972, there had been a series of “orphan spills” or “Mystery Oil Spills of the San Mateo Coast,” that had repeatedly plagued our area from Marin to Monterey, killing upwards of 50,000 birds.
Finally, knowing the cause, a 19- million- dollar cleanup of the wreck’s still present heavy fuel oil was initiated that year. Under very difficult conditions, 175 feet deep, in 45- degree water, and strong currents, about one hundred thousand gallons of the peanut butter-thick oil was heated, then pumped to the surface. Unable to reach some tanks because of thick bottom sediments (the reason 185 feet became 175), the cargo corroded into solid masses that blocked access, and even restrictions on techniques that could be used because of The Abandoned Shipwreck Act and the National Marine Sanctuary Protection Act, the divers had to leave an estimated thirty thousand gallons in the wreck.
They did, however, seal off the holes where they assumed the leaks were originating from. But, five years have passed since then and molecule by molecule the “universal solvent” continues to weaken the sixty-five year old tanks, ever so slowly bringing the monster a little closer to life.
If 30,000 gallons doesn’t seem like much of a danger to you, another possibly much more powerful monster also lurks not far away in the stern section of the Tanker Vessel Puerto Rican. It sank very close to the Farallones Marine Sanctuary boundary with up to 8,500 barrels (over 300,000 gallons) of heavy fuel oil in it, three days after an explosion and fire weakened it on Halloween, 1984.
After having been towed far offshore to protect the Bay, and our coast, it had broken up, disgorging over a million gallons of lubrication oil and additives into the ocean. That quick response kept the monstrous spill primarily offshore and spared us an enormous amount of ecological damage. Which is why it is so poorly remembered.
But, sunk in 1400 feet of water, there will be no cleanup of the wrecked stern, with its unknown quantity of remaining oil. We can only wait until the monster comes ashore. Enjoy. John Vonderlin.
Email John: firstname.lastname@example.org
Note from HMBM: See also Joanna Hawkin’s “Hydrographic Data Key Element in SS Jacob Luckenbach Oil Removal”