Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association protecting our ocean wilderness through public stewardship
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Successes of the Sanctuary: The Luckenbach

In 1993, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, through its Beach Watch monitoring program, instituted systematic surveys on coastal Oiled cormorant found by Beachwatch volunteers.beaches from Point Año Nuevo to Bodega Head by a highly trained cadre of citizen scientist volunteer and sanctuary staff. Intermittent “mystery spills” tossed up tar balls and dead birds on beaches from Marin County to Monterey and west to the Farallon Islands, usually after major winter storms. On Thanksgiving Day, 2001, Farallones Marine Sanctuary Manager Ed Ueber received a report that birds had begun washing ashore laden with oil, dead or dying, from San Francisco down to Monterey County, centering in San Mateo County. Additional surveys were ordered, and more fouled wildlife was found.

Finding the Culprit

This latest incident bore a curious resemblance to spills dating back into the early 1990s, so the investigation focused on shipwrecks. To determine the source and craft a response, a multidisciplinary team of engineers, biologists, chemists, meteorologists Tarball found by Beachwatch volunteer. and government officials joined together from many agencies. Forming the Unified Command were the U.S. Coast Guard San Francisco Marine Safety Office, the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), the California State Lands Commission, and several divisions of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Channel Islands, Monterey Bay and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries, and the National Marine Sanctuary Program were key Command components. Robert Schwemmer, compiler of a database on shipwrecks throughout NOAA’s Marine Sanctuary Program, preliminarily identified the Luckenbach as the spill source. Two volunteer divers were able to secure oil samples from directly above the wreck.

In February 2002, using state of the art gas chromatography analysis, OSPR determined conclusively that the SS Jacob Luckenbach oil “fingerprint” matched the oil found on these birds, and several other “mystery” spills that had fouled wildlife and beaches for at least a decade, since Beach Watch began, perhaps longer.

The Plan

Unified Command decided to attempt removal, or lightering, of as much oil as possible, using funds from the US Coast Guard’s “OPA” fund – monies set aside in accordance with the Oil Pollution Act.

Titan Maritime Industries contracted with Global Diving and Salvage for surface and saturation divers and equipment. The engineering firm PCCI provided technical support and computer imagery needed to piece together the pictures of how the wreck lay. Based on diver reports, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) video, old vessel blueprints and sidescan sonar images, engineers developed three-dimensional computer simulated images of the wreck and debris field, hull cross-sections and interior compartments.

Lightering Operations

 InPhoto: Dan Porter. The Crowley Maritime barge CMC 450-10 that served as command center and living quarters for the 50 or so men and women involved in the lightering and wildlife observation activities.  the midnight hours of May 26th, 2002, the 400-foot by 100-foot Crowley Maritime support barge CMC 450-10 steamed out of San Francisco. Seven hours later, six anchors, each weighing 15,000 or 20,000 pounds, were set.

High seas plagued the project, with sea heights of 15-17 foot swells and wind speeds of 45 knots. To ease the strain on the barge’s anchor cables, the tug Gladiator, its tow wire linked to the barge, maintained a steady one-knot speed, 24 hours per day, into heavy oncoming swells. On Saturday, June 8th, huge seas hammered the barge. Despite the tug, a fair lead tore and two of the anchor cables failed. The barge sought the safety of Drake’s Bay where it hunkered down, unable to enter San Francisco Bay, which had been closed due to extreme sea conditions at the bar. When the seas subsided, the vessel put into port. Five days later, the repairs completed, Captain Dan Porter steered her back out to resume operations. Meanwhile, NOAA was busy with weather forecasting and estimating oil trajectories in the event of a release.

Broken anchor cables. Photo: Dan Porter.

Once at sea, the crew lost no time deploying the ROV. The ROV served as the divers’ “guiding light” in the murky depths, recorded the divers’ work and probed cargo holds whose contents had destabilized.

The plan was to use 6-inch diameter hoses to siphon the oil up to the barge’s topside collection tank. Instead of encountering oil of a fluid viscosity, the divers found oil that intense pressure, cold, and the passage of 50 years had transformed into the consistency of peanut butter. The divers at first wielded steam wands to soften the sludge with unsatisfactory results, and then used heat exchangers to liquefy the oil. Bit by bit, by trial, error, perseverance and innovation, the engineers and others found the combination of tools and techniques that would ultimately prove successful.

Minor oil leaks occurred even before attempts at pumping had begun. Initially, oil rose in quarter-sized tar balls, which thinned into evanescent sheets of rainbow colors that were quickly dispersed by strong breezes before they could be collected. At one point, a slick 2-1/2 miles long formed. If the consistency permitted, the Oil Spill Response Vessels (OSRV's) standing by would deploy absorbent pads to soak up the oil. Occasionally, solid pancakes of oil a foot in diameter would float up, which the crew retrieved with boathooks and nets.

Wildlife Magnet

The wreck was a wildlife magnet. It had become an artificial reef encrusted with ghostly pale or bright pink sea anemones, corals, tubeworms and barnacles. Hundreds of rockfish swarmed about the wreck, seeking the safety of concealment, finding food. Hungry California sea lions ferreted them out and were constantly seen at the barge. Murres, cormorants, and gulls appeared most often on the data sheets. Golden chrysaora jellyfish carpeted the area. Later in the season, humpback and blue whales, even orcas, visited the barge, and occasionally dolphins.Migrating blue whales were observed off the barge. Photo: Dan Shapiro.


The Outcome

In early October 2002, operations concluded. The Crowley barge returned to port with over 100,000 gallons of recovered oil. Perhaps an additional 29,000 gallons remain trapped in the wreck which may never be recoverable. It is hoped that over time, the shifting sands of the sea floor bed will form a cap over the remaining tanks and outlets—a shroud on the vanquished freighter.

The tug Gladiator tows the barge back into the San Francisco Bay. Photo: Dan Porter.

The total cost of the project was set at $19 million. The operation, originally slated to last just over two weeks, took nearly five months. Heavy seas were mostly to blame. The 2002-2003 winter’s storms released oil and damaged wildlife, but less than in previous similar storms. The threat posed by the sunken freighter had been diminished. The Natural Resources Damage Analysis is now underway.  The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and other agencies are still looking into what other oil pollution events might be attributable to the Luckenbach. (The SS Jacob Luckenbach is only one of many shipwrecks in the Sanctuary, several with oil and other hazardous waste inside.)

This was a uniquely challenging, groundbreaking salvage operation. Farallones Marine Sanctuary Manager Ed Ueber noted, “This operation showed NOAA and the other agencies working at full throttle, effectively juggling natural, physical and legislative complexities.”

We have successfully removed the worst of this threat, but only time will tell the ultimate tale of the Jacob Luckenbach. Regular Beach Watch monitoring continues, and as of January 2006, despite a series of severe storms, the data reveals a startling complete absence of beachcast oiled wildlife. Our efforts warrant a cautious optimism, but we'll still be watching, fingers crossed!


Mary Jane Schramm, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA. Ms. Schramm was the Sanctuary Logistics Lead and a Wildlife Observer for the lightering and wildlife efforts for the Jacob Luckenbach salvage operation.