NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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On the Hunt for Shipping Containers Lost off California Coast

Large waves break on a pier that people are walking along.

The M/V Manoa lost 12 containers in stormy seas off the coast of California in the area of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. (Credit: Beach Watch/mojoscoast)

On December 11, 2015, the Matson container ship M/V Manoa was en route to Seattle from Oakland, California, when it lost 12 large containers in heavy seas. At the time of the spill, the ship was maneuvering in order to allow the San Francisco Bay harbor pilot to disembark.

The containers, which are 40 feet long and 9 feet wide, are reported as empty except for miscellaneous packing materials, such as plastic crates and packing materials such as Styrofoam. Luckily there were no hazardous materials in the cargo that was spilled.

The accident occurred about eight miles outside of the Golden Gate Bridge in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Three containers have come ashore, two at or near Baker Beach, just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, and one at Mori Point near Pacifica, California. The search continues for the others.

The Coast Guard is responding to this incident with assistance from NOAA, the National Park Service, State of California, and City of San Francisco. The responsible party is working with an environmental contractor to recover the debris and containers. The Coast Guard asks that if a container is found floating or approaching shore to exercise caution and notify the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco Command Center at 415-399-7300.

On December 14, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration became involved when the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco contacted the NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator for the region, Jordan Stout. The Coast Guard requested help from the Office of Response and Restoration in tracking the missing containers. Oceanographer Chris Barker is providing trajectory modeling, using wind and current information to predict the potential direction of the spilled containers.

NOAA chart of waters off San Francisco showing where the shipping containers were lost and where three have been found.

A NOAA oceanographer is using wind and current information to predict the potential direction of the spilled shipping containers off the California coast. This information is helping direct search efforts for the remaining containers. (NOAA)

This accident occurred in NOAA’s Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association Beach Watch program, provided some of the initial sightings to the Coast Guard, and volunteers are doing additional beach surveys to look for debris and more containers. There is a concern that the containers, contents, or parts of the containers could pose a hazard to wildlife through entanglement or by ingestion. There is also concern about the containers potentially damaging ocean and coastal bottom habitats within the marine sanctuary. (Read a statement from the sanctuary superintendent. [PDF])

This incident illustrates another way that marine debris can enter the environment. According to Sherry Lippiatt of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, “This incident is a reminder that while marine debris is an everyday problem, winter storms and higher ocean swells may increase the amount of debris entering the environment.”

To learn more about how storms can lead to increased marine debris, take a look at the recent article, California’s “First Flush”. For information on how citizen science can help in situations like this, see this article about searching for Japan tsunami debris on the California coast.


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What Was the Fate of Lake Erie’s Leaking Shipwreck, the Argo?

Two people on a boat inspect a diver in a full dive suit.

A diver, wearing a positive pressure dive suit, is inspected by his coworkers prior to conducting dive operations for the Argo response in Lake Erie, Nov. 24, 2015. Divers conducting operations during the Argo response are required to wear specialized dive suits designed for the utmost safety to the diver while ensuring flexibility, ease of decontamination, and chemical resistance. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October, we reported that our oil spill experts were helping the U.S. Coast Guard with a spill coming from the tank barge Argo in Lake Erie. The unusual twist in this case was that the leaking Argo was located at the bottom of the lake under approximately 40 feet of water. Nearly 80 years earlier, on October 20, 1937, this ship had foundered in a storm and sank in western Lake Erie.

At this point, the pollution response for the Argo is wrapping up, and we have more information about this shipwreck and the fate of its cargo.

For example, we knew that originally this ship was loaded with thousands of barrels of crude oil and benzol (an old commercial name for the chemical benzene), but after decades of sitting underwater, were the eight tanks holding them still intact? How much of the oil and chemical cargo was still inside them? What exactly was causing the discolored slicks on the lake surface? What was the threat to people and the environment from this pollution?

In Less Than Ship-Shape

Two hands place a label on a jar of oil.

A responder labels a sample of product for analysis extracted from the Lake Erie Barge Argo Nov. 11, 2015. NOAA was involved in coordinating environmental sampling and analysis of the leaking chemicals coming from this 1937 shipwreck. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Based on our previous work with NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project, we had identified the Argo as a potential pollution threat in 2013. It was one of five potentially polluting wrecks identified in the Great Lakes. However, the exact location of the wreck was unknown, and the barge was thought to be on the Canadian side of the lake.

But in September 2015, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers located the vessel, which was confirmed to be in U.S. waters of Lake Erie and appeared from side-scan sonar survey imagery to be intact. Divers commissioned by the Coast Guard surveyed the wreck in October and found its eight cargo tanks were intact.

Yet they also observed something slowly leaking from a small rivet hole in the vessel’s structure. After sampling the leaking material, we now know that it was primarily benzene with traces of a light petroleum product.

Lighter the Load

Two responders carry a large tube next to pipe and holding tanks.

Responders aboard one of two work barges for the Lake Erie Barge Argo response prepare the receiving tanks in this Nov. 18, 2015 photo in preparation for lightering operations of the Argo. All chemicals and petroleum products were successfully removed from the wreck of the barge. (U.S. Coast Guard)

From late October through early December, we had a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator and support team working with the Coast Guard’s response in Toledo, Ohio. One of our primary functions was advising the Coast Guard on chemical hazards (e.g., benzene is known to cause cancer). For example, we were modeling where the chemicals would travel through the air and across the water surface if a sizable release were to occur during the wreck’s salvage operations.

Responders finished lightering operations, which removed all remaining chemicals and oil from the barge to another vessel, on December 1. Based on sampling, we believe any residual chemical traces in the sediment surrounding the wreck will continue to break down naturally and do not pose a threat to people or aquatic life in the vicinity of the wreck.

Over the course of the response, NOAA provided almost 30 trajectory forecasts for surface slicks, daily weather forecasts, and data management support via our online response mapping application, ERMA, which displayed NOAA charts and weather, NOAA and Canadian spill trajectories, spill modeling and aerial survey information, spill response plans, and data for environmentally sensitive habitats and species in the area.

NOAA, along with state and federal partners, also managed the development of environmental monitoring, water sampling, sediment sampling, and waste disposal plans for the Argo’s response. In addition, the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory provided science and logistical support and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries provided key historical and archival research on the vessel and cargo.


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When Vegetable Oil Coats Local Birds, One NOAA Staffer Swaps Computer Software for Rubber Gloves and Soapy Water

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Valerie Chu.

Closeup of an oiled Canada goose in a wash tub while hands in rubber gloves wash it.

A Canada goose gets carefully washed after a vegetable oil spill in Seattle, Washington, coated its feathers. (Copyright: PAWS Wildlife Center)

While I work for a part of NOAA that responds to oil and chemical spills, I’m normally behind the scenes. My job is to check if the computer software programs run properly so that they can do things like predict the impacts of pollution on aquatic species. But a recent and unusual vegetable oil spill in my own backyard brought me to the front lines for the first time.

While food-based oils don’t tend to be as toxic as petroleum-based oils, they can still harm wildlife in a number of ways, such as coating feathers or fur and destroying the insulating properties that keep animals warm in aquatic environments.

An accidental spill of cooking oil in Seattle, Washington, ended up affecting dozens of ducks and geese in a neighborhood pond. The oiled birds are being treated at PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, Washington, with a group called Focus Wildlife International providing treatment to these birds.

That’s how I got involved with this spill, even though NOAA is not involved with this spill response. I’m a volunteer Wildlife Care Assistant at PAWS and have been volunteering there for about two years. The primary goal at PAWS is to rehabilitate sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife and then release them back into the wild. They care for more than 260 species, ranging from eagles and chickadees to seals and bears. Saturday, November 21, 2015 was my first time volunteering with oiled wildlife.

Two women in overalls and gloves spray water to rinse oil and soap from a Canada goose.

Each oiled bird is carefully washed and rinsed multiple times to remove oil from its feathers. (Copyright: PAWS Wildlife Center)

As I learned, the process of washing each oiled bird involves multiple washing tubs, a rinsing station, warm water, and lots of Dawn dish soap. I was assigned several tasks to help with the washing. First, I had to give the oiled birds eye drops to help protect their eyes from the soap. In addition, I dumped washing tubs after they were used, refilled the tubs with warm water, and cleaned the enclosure containing some of the oiled birds.

Interestingly, I also recorded the start and end times of washing and rinsing for each bird. The washing and rinsing process times varied with the birds’ cooperation, as well as the degree of oiling. If there was an uncooperative bird, then the process would definitely take longer. In total, I volunteered for four hours and helped wash vegetable oil off of two Canada geese.

Overall, it was really fulfilling for me to help wash birds affected by this spill because it combined my career in spill response software with my hobby of caring for wildlife. Spending my Saturday washing oiled birds was absolutely worthwhile for me, giving me first-hand experience with what it is like to care for animals affected by an oil spill.

And more than ever, this experience has encouraged me to continue developing software tools for spill response and volunteering with oiled wildlife.

Three people help wash an oiled goose in big soapy wash tubs.

Valerie Chu, at center, volunteers with PAWS to help clean oiled birds.

Valerie Chu is an Environmental Scientist who has been providing support for the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division software projects since 2012, when she obtained her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science and Resource Management and then started working with NOAA and Genwest. During her spare time, she volunteers with animal welfare-related causes such as PAWS and Zazu’s House Parrot Sanctuary.


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Explore Oil Spill Data for Gulf of Mexico Marine Life With NOAA GIS Tools

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the sheer amount of data scientists were gathering from the Gulf of Mexico was nearly overwhelming. Everything from water quality samples to the locations of oiled sea turtles to photos of dolphins swimming through oil—the list goes on for more than 13 million scientific records.

So, how would anyone even start to dig through all this scientific information? Fortunately, you don’t have to be a NOAA scientist to access, download, or even map it. We have been building tools to allow anyone to access this wealth of information on the Gulf of Mexico environment following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

We’re taking a look at two of our geographic information systems tools and how they help scientists, emergency responders, and the public navigate the oceans of environmental data collected since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

When it comes to mapping and understanding huge amounts of these data, we turn to our GIS-based tool, the Environmental Response Management Application, known as ERMA®. This online mapping tool is like a Swiss army knife for organizing data and information for planning and environmental emergencies, such as oil spills and hurricanes.

ERMA not only allows pollution responders to see real-time information, including weather information and ship locations, but also enables users to display years of data, revealing to us broader trends.

View of Environmental Response Management Application showing map of Gulf of Mexico with varying probabilities of oil presence and sea turtle oiling during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with data source information.

In the “Layer” tab on the right side of the screen, you can choose which groups of data, or “layers,” to display in ERMA. Right click on a data layer, such as “Turtle Captures Probability of Oiling (NOAA) (PDARP),” and select “View metadata” to view more information about the data being shown. (NOAA)

For instance, say you want to know the likelihood of sea turtles being exposed to heavy oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. ERMA enables you to see where sea turtles were spotted during aerial surveys or captured by researchers across the Gulf of Mexico between May and September 2010. At the same time, you can view data showing the probability that certain areas of the ocean surface were oiled (and for how long), all displayed on a single, interactive map.

View of Environmental Management Application map of Gulf of Mexico showing varying probabilities of oil presence and sea turtle exposure to oil during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill with map legend.

Clicking on the “Legend” tab on the right side of the screen shows you basic information about the data displayed in ERMA. Here, the red area represents portions of the Gulf of Mexico which had the highest likelihood of exposing marine life to oil. Triangles show sea turtle sightings and squares show sea turtle captures between May and September 2010. The color of the symbol indicates the likelihood of that sea turtle receiving heavy exposure to oil. (NOAA)

Perhaps you want to focus on where Atlantic bluefin tuna were traveling around the Gulf and where that overlaps with the oil spill’s footprint. Or compare coastal habitat restoration projects with the degree of oil different sections of shoreline experienced. ERMA gives you that access.

You can use ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response to find these data in a number of ways (including search) and choose which GIS “layers” of data to turn on and off in the map. To see the most recently added data, click on the “Recent Data” tab in the upper left of the map interface, or find data by browsing through the “Layers” tab on the right. Or look for data in special “bookmark views” on the lower right of the “Layers” tab to find data for a specific topic of interest.

Now, what if you not only want to see a map of the data, what if you also want to explore any trends in the data at a deeper level? Or download photos, videos, or scientific analyses of the data?

That’s where our data management tool DIVER comes in. This tool serves as a central repository for environmental impact data from the oil spill and was designed to help researchers share and find scientific information ranging from photos and field notes to sample data and analyses.

As Ocean Conservancy’s Elizabeth Fetherston put it:

Until recently, there was no real way to combine all of these disparate pixels of information into a coherent picture of, for instance, a day in the life of a sea turtle. DIVER, NOAA’s new website for Deepwater Horizon assessment data, gives us the tools to do just that.

Data information and integration systems like DIVER put all of that information in one place at one time, allowing you to look for causes and effects that you might not have ever known were there and then use that information to better manage species recovery. These data give us a new kind of power for protecting marine species.

One of the most important features of DIVER, called DIVER Explorer, is the powerful search function that allows you to narrow down the millions of data pieces to the precise set you’re seeking. You do it one step, or “filter,” at a time.

DIVER software dialog box showing how to build a query by workplan topic area for marine mammals studied during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A view of the step-by-step process of building a “query,” or specialized search, in our DIVER tool for Deepwater Horizon oil spill environmental impact data. (NOAA)

For example, when you go to DIVER Explorer, click on “Guided Query” at the top and then “Start to Explore Data,” choose “By Workplan Topic Area,” hit “Next,” and finally select “Marine Mammals” before clicking “Run Query” to access information about scientific samples taken from marine mammals and turtles. You can view it on a map, in a table, or download the data to analyze yourself.

An even easier way to explore these data in DIVER, however, is by visiting https://www.doi.gov/deepwaterhorizon/adminrecord and scrolling down to and clicking on #5 Preassessment/Assessment (§§ 990.40 – 990.45; 990.51). This will reveal a list of various types of environmental impacts—to birds, sea floor habitat, marine mammals, etc.—which the federal government studied as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment.

Say you’re interested in marine mammals, so you click on 5.6 Marine Mammal Injury and then 5.6.3 Data sets. You can then download and open the document “NOAA Marine Mammal data related to the Deepwater Horizon incident, available through systems such as DIVER and ERMA, or as direct downloads. (September 23, 2015).”

Under the section “Data Links,” you can choose from a variety of stored searches (or “queries”) in DIVER that will show you where and when, for example, bottlenose dolphins with satellite tags traveled after the spill (tip: zoom in to view this data on the map)—along with photographs to go with it (tip: click on the “Photos” tab under the map to browse).

Map view of DIVER software map showing where tagged dolphins swam in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A map view of DIVER shows where tagged dolphins traveled along the Gulf Coast, showing two populations that stayed in their home bases of Barataria Bay and Mississippi Sound. (NOAA)

This can tell us key information, such as the fact that certain populations of dolphins stay in the same areas along the coast, meaning they don’t travel far from home. We can also look at data about whether those dolphin homes were exposed to a lot of oil, which would suggest that the dolphins that lived there likely were exposed to oil again and again.

Both of these tools allow us to work with incredible amounts of data and see their stories brought to life through the power of geographic information systems. So, go ahead and start exploring!


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Science of Oil Spills Training Now Accepting Applications for Spring 2016

Two people closely examining rocks and seaweed on a shoreline.

These classes help prepare responders to understand the environmental risks and scientific considerations when addressing oil spills, and also include a field trip to a local beach to apply newly learned skills. (NOAA)

NOAA‘s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes in two locations in spring 2016:

  • Mobile, Alabama the week of March 28, 2016
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan the week of May 16, 2016

We will accept applications for these classes as follows:

For the Mobile class, the application period will be open until Friday, January 22. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, February 5.

For the Ann Arbor class, the application period will be open until Friday, March 11. We will notify accepted participants by email no later than Friday, March 25.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

These trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


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Remembering the Veterans That Served America and the Historic Shipwrecks They Left Behind

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that over 20,000 shipwrecks rest on the ocean floor off our coasts? The past century of commerce and warfare has left us with this legacy of sunken vessels dotting the seafloor around the United States.

While some of these are naval vessels, a large proportion are merchant vessels destroyed during war time. These wrecks are skewed heavily to World War II casualties such as those fallen during the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Some wrecks, such as the Civil War casualty, the USS Monitor, have been listed as National Historic Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of them, such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are either civilian or military grave sites.

Beyond their military and historic significance, these wrecks also represent an enormous human toll. Today—on Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other nations—we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces of all nations, as well as those serving in the Merchant Marine, and commemorate those who gave their lives in that service.

The Terrible Cost of the Battle of the Atlantic

During World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, German U-boats and warships (and later Italian submarines) were pitted against Allied convoys transporting military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This battle to control Atlantic shipping lanes involved thousands of ships and stretched across thousands of square miles of ocean.

A Coast Guard ship's crew watches an explosion in the water ahead.

On April 17, 1943, Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch the explosion of a depth charge that blasted a Nazi U-boat’s hope of breaking into the center of a large convoy of ships. World War II left thousands of Allied and Axis ships — and soldiers — on the bottom of the ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The losses in the battle were staggering. Between January and June 1942 alone, this battle resulted in the sinking of almost 500 ships. Historians estimate that more than 100 convoy battles took place during the war, costing Britain’s Merchant Navy more than 30,000 men and around 3,000 ships. The terrible cost for the Germans was 783 U-boats and 28,000 sailors, about 75% of the U-boat force. Although casualty statistics vary, we know that the U.S. Merchant Mariners suffered the highest rate of marine casualties of any service in World War II.

While many of these sunken vessels in U.S. waters rest in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, numerous wrecks, such as the S/S Montebello, can be found in the Pacific. And of course, the wartime toll was spread across the world’s oceans, touching nearly all parts of the globe.

NOAA’s Role with Undersea Wrecks

NOAA is involved with shipwrecks in a number of ways. The agency’s role ranges from offering scientific guidance to the U.S. Coast Guard during pollution responses, to stewarding the diverse natural and cultural resources including shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, to creating navigational charts that show the precise locations of wrecks that could hinder maritime traffic. Most of the 20,000 wrecks resting off our coasts are old and did not carry oil as fuel or hazardous cargo; however, some of the more recent wrecks have the potential to contain—and sometimes leak—oil.

In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of the S/S Jacob Luckenbach (carrying supplies to support the Korean War) was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. Our office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck, protect the resources of the Great Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and restore critical seabird breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada to make up for the harm caused by the oil releases.

Two divers and a shark swim next to a large shipwreck.

Knowing how shipwreck sites formed helps explain why sunken vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Leaking wrecks like the Jacob Luckenbach are one reason NOAA maintains a large database of shipwrecks, dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater cultural resources, known as the Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST) database.

Beginning in 2010, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries systematically analyzed a subset of those wrecks which could pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project. (Read more about the work conducted and the final report (PDF).) After the report was completed in 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked to incorporate the information and recommendations into their regional contingency plans.

NOAA also has the privilege of protecting shipwrecks and naval battlefields though its National Marine Sanctuaries office. The first NOAA national marine sanctuary was designated in 1975 to protect the U.S. Navy warship USS Monitor, and other sanctuaries have followed in these footsteps of preserving historic wrecks. Today, you can explore fascinating undersea wrecks at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes, and at other sanctuaries.

Wrecks and Reefs

Sometimes these submerged shipwrecks can serve as artificial reefs. Sunken wrecks are actually the most prevalent type of artificial reef. As artificial reefs, shipwrecks can create both amazing homes for a diversity of marine life and popular attractions for commercial and recreational fishers, divers, and snorkelers.

Occasionally, vessels are even sunk intentionally for this purpose. However, it can be very costly to prepare the vessels to become artificial reefs, which requires removing paints and other hazardous materials in the hull. Another consideration is the stability of the vessel and its danger to living things around it. For example, if the vessel is in shallow water, will it flip over in a storm and crush the new coral growing there? Could people or marine life get caught inside it? These considerations are why artificial reefs are often found in deep water and why establishing an artificial reef requires special review and permitting processes.

Through the study, protection, and promotion of our diverse legacy of undersea wrecks, national marine sanctuaries help us learn more about and celebrate our merchant marine and military history.

Explore Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

You can learn more about NOAA expeditions between 2008 and 2011, which explored the World War II wrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

You also can watch a video of researchers first discovering the long-lost location of the USS Monitor’s wreck in 1973 off the coast of North Carolina:

See what it’s like to dive among the many wrecks at the bottom of Lake Huron in Thunder Bay’s “Shipwreck Alley”:

Take a video tour of the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941, and pay homage to the members of the U.S. armed forces who gave their lives.

Video frame of a diver exploring a shipwreck.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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Stepping on Board the Most Eerie, Neglected Ship I Had Ever Seen

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

Before Friday, October 9, 2015, I had never set foot on an abandoned ship. Or for that matter, any other manmade structure so neglected that trees were growing out of it.

But on that day, I was invited to accompany three members of the U.S. Coast Guard here in Seattle, Washington, to investigate a tugboat which was reported to be abandoned and only four inches away from sinking. After a quick glance at the rusting, eerie hulk barely afloat in a ship canal, my bets were on it being abandoned too.

Once at the docks, we met pollution responders from the State of Washington and a local salvage company. After taking stock of the neglected vessel and its surrounding conditions, we boarded the vessel and began conducting an investigation. The Coast Guard inspected the engine room first, where they measured how much water currently was flooding the tug’s engine room. Then, they made note of any hazardous materials nested in cupboards and on shelves—large industrial batteries, paint cans, or lubricants—that would require special disposal.

My favorite part was rummaging through the galley, captain’s quarters, and the bridge. The living areas on board the vessel appeared ransacked. For starters, the helm had been removed and copper wires from the fire panel were missing.

However, we were looking for any information on the layout of the vessel in order to answer a number of questions. How many fuel tanks were on board and how large were they? Where were the ballast tanks? Who was the last owner or when was the last log entry in the book recording the engine’s oil changes?

Unfortunately, our search that day turned up empty, aside from a cluttered mess of clothes, a half-used bottle of aspirin, some books, and a pile of empty beer cans resembling bones in an open graveyard.

Our only clues leading to who owned this boat were a chalkboard message left to the owner by a shipmate and a left-behind DVD from the movie rental kiosk company Redbox. The movie was Couples Retreat, which was released in 2009, suggesting someone previously on board had a soft spot for romantic comedies and now owes Redbox a sizable bill for this dollar-per-day rental.

The last moorage payment the dock facility received for this boat was in 2008. Since then, the vessel has been slowly withering away and nature is creeping in. Trees and moss grow freely in cracks and crevices, eating away at the ship’s structure.

While the Coast Guard will pay for the salvage company to pump the water out of the engine room and fix the leak to keep the vessel from sinking, they do not have the funds or jurisdiction to get rid of the derelict tug. The problem of abandoned vessels is a recurring, expensive, and polluting one, which a NOAA colleague also learned firsthand:

“These neglected ships often pose significant threats to fish, wildlife, and nearby habitat, in addition to becoming eyesores and hazards to navigation. Derelict vessels are a challenge to deal with properly because of ownership accountability issues, potential chemical and oil contamination, and the high cost of salvage and disposal. Only limited funds are available to deal with these types of vessels before they start sinking.”

And, tied to a pier in Seattle, yet another decaying vessel will remain haunted by the remnants of those who abandoned it and will continue to haunt our waterways as well.

Editor’s note: Stay tuned for a special series in early November when we’ll be diving deeper into the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

LTJG Rachel Pryor and a tree (right) growing on a derelict vessel.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.

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