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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For Alaska’s Remote Pribilof Islands, a Tale of Survival and Restoration for People and Seals

Set in the middle of Alaska’s Bering Sea, a string of five misty islands known as the Pribilof Islands possess a long, rich, and at times, dark history. A history of near extinction, survival, and restoration for both people and nature. A history involving Alaska Natives, Russians, the U.S. government and military, and seals.

It begins with the native people, known as the Unangan, who live there. They tell a story that, as they say, belongs to a place, not any one person. The story is of the hunter Iggadaagix, who first found these islands many years ago after being swept away in a storm and who wanted to bring the Unangan back there from the Aleutian Islands. When the Unangan finally did return for good, it was in the 18th century, and their lives would become intimately intertwined with those of the northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus). Each summer roughly half of all northern fur seals breed and give birth in the Pribilof Islands.

Map of fur seal distributions in Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, with location of Pribilof Islands.

An 1899 map of the distribution (in red) and migrations of the American and Asiatic Fur Seal Herds in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean. Based on data collected 1893-1897. The Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George) are visible north of the main Aleutian Islands, surrounded by the center collections of red dots. Click to enlarge. (U.S. Government)

But these seals and their luxurious fur, along with the tale of Iggadaagix, would eventually bring about dark times for the seals, the Unangan, and the islands themselves. After hearing of Iggadaagix and searching for a new source of furs, Russian navigator Gavriil Loginovich Pribylov would land in 1786 on the islands which would eventually bear his name. He and others would bring the Unangan from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilof’s St. George and St. Paul Islands, where they would be put to work harvesting and processing the many fur seals.

In these early years on the islands, Russian hunters so quickly decimated the fur seal population that the Russian-American Company, which held the charter for settling there, suspended hunting from 1805 to 1810. The annual limit for taking fur seals was then set at 8,000 to 10,000 pelts, allowing the population to rebound significantly.

The United States Arrives at the Islands

Fast forward to 1867, when the United States purchased Alaska, including the Pribilof Islands, from Russia for $7.2 million.

Some people considered the lucrative Pribilof Islands fur seal industry to have played a role in this purchase. In fact, this industry more than repaid the U.S. government for Alaska’s purchase price, hauling in $9,473,996 between 1870 and 1909.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw various U.S. military branches establish stations on the Pribilof Islands, as well as several (at times unsuccessful) attempts to control the reckless slaughter of fur seals. From 1867 until 1983, the U.S. government managed the fur seal industry on the Pribilof Islands.

In 1984, the Unangan finally were granted control of these islands, but the government had left behind a toxic legacy from commercial fur sealing and former defense sites: hazardous waste sites, dumps, contaminants, and debris.

Making Amends with the Land

This is where NOAA comes into the picture. In 1996, the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Act called on NOAA to restore the environmental degradation on the Pribilof Islands. In particular, a general lack of historical accountability on the islands had led to numerous diesel fuel spills and leaks and improperly stored and disposed waste oils and antifreeze. By 1997 NOAA had removed thousands of tons of old cars, trucks, tractors, barrels, storage tanks, batteries, scrap metal, and tires from St. Paul and St. George Islands. Beginning in 2002, NOAA’s efforts transitioned to cleaning up soil contamination and assessing potential pollution in groundwater.

However, the Department of Defense has also been responsible for environmental cleanup at the Pribilof Islands. The U.S. Army occupied the islands during World War II and left behind debris and thousands of 55-gallon drums, which were empty by 1985 but had previously contained petroleum, oils, and lubricants, which could have leaked into the soil.

By 2008, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration had fulfilled its responsibilities for cleaning up the contamination on the Pribilof Islands, closing a dark chapter for this remote and diverse area of the world and hopefully continuing the healing process for the Unangan and fur seals who still call these islands their home.

Learn More about the Pribilof Islands

Man posing with schoolchildren.

Dr. G. Dallas Hanna with a class of Aleut schoolchildren on St. George Island, Alaska, circa 1914. (National Archives)

You can dig even deeper into the wealth of historical information about the Pribilof Islands at pribilof.noaa.gov.

There you can find histories, photos, videos, and documents detailing the islands’ various occupations, the fur seal industry, the relocation of the Unangan during World War II, the environmental contamination and restoration, and more.

You can also watch:


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Three and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Oil Spills

Lakeview oil gusher surrounded by sandbags.

The largest oil spill in the United States actually took place in 1910 in Kern county, California. The Lakeview #1 gusher is seen here, bordered by sandbags and derrick removed, after the well’s release had started to subside. (U.S. Geological Survey)

Like human-caused climate change and garbage in the ocean, oil spills seem to be another environmental plague of modern times. Or are they?

The human relationship with oil may be older than you think. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, that relationship may date back more than 13,000 years. Archaeologists have discovered a long history of Native Americans using oil from the area’s natural seeps, including the Yokut Indians creating dice-like game pieces out of walnut shells, asphalt, and abalone shells. At an archaeological site in Syria, the timeline extends back even further: bitumen oil was used to affix handles onto Middle Paleolithic flint tools dating to around 40,000 BC.

As history has a tendency to repeat itself, we can benefit from occasional glimpses back in time to place what is happening today into a context beyond our own fast-moving lives. When it comes to oil spills, you may be surprised to learn that this history goes far beyond—and is much more complicated than—simply the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spills.

Based on the research of NOAA oil spill biologist Gary Shigenaka, here we present three and a half things you probably didn’t know about the history of oil spills.

1. Oil spills have been happening for more than 150 years, but society has only recently started considering them “disasters.”

If you look back in time for historical accounts of oil spills, you may have a hard time finding early reports. When the first oil prospectors in Pennsylvania would hit oil and it almost inevitably gushed into the nearby soil and streams, people at the time saw this not as “environmental degradation” but as a natural consequence of the good fortune of finding oil. In an 1866 account of Pennsylvania’s oil-producing Venango County, this attitude of acceptance becomes apparent:

When the first wells were opened…there was little or no tankage ready to receive it, and the oil ran into the creek and flooded the land around the wells until it lay in small ponds.  Pits were dug in the ground to receive it, and dams constructed to secure it, yet withal the loss was very great…the river was flooded with oil, and hundreds of barrels were gathered from the surface as low down as Franklin, and prepared as lubricating oil.  Even below this point oil could be gathered in the eddies and still water along the shore, and was distinctly perceptible as far down as Pittsburgh, one hundred and forty miles below.

2. The largest oil spill in the United States didn’t take place in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 but in the California desert a hundred years earlier.

But similar to the Deepwater Horizon, this oil spill also stemmed from a runaway oil well. In Maricopa, California, the people drilling Lakeview Well No. 1 lost control of the well, which would eventually spew approximately 378 million gallons of oil into the sandy soil around it. The spill lasted more than a year, from March 14, 1910 until September 10, 1911, and only ceased after the well collapsed on itself, leaving a crater in the desert surrounded by layers of oil the consistency of asphalt.

3. The Alaskan Arctic is not untouched by oil spills; the first one happened in 1944.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice.

The Naval ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington surrounded by Arctic sea ice. This ship likely caused the first major oil spill in Alaskan Arctic waters in August 1944. (U.S. Navy)

NOAA and many others are doing a lot of planning in case of an oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. But whatever may happen in the future, in August of 1944, Alaska Native Thomas P. Brower, Sr. witnessed what was likely the first oil spill in the Alaskan Arctic. The U.S. Navy cargo ship S.S. Jonathan Harrington grounded on a sandbar near Barrow, Alaska. To lighten the ship enough to get off the sandbar, the crew apparently chose to release some of the oil it was carrying. In a 1978 interview, Brower describes the scene and its impacts on Arctic wildlife:

About 25,000 gallons of oil were deliberately spilled into the Beaufort Sea…the oil formed a mass several inches thick on top of the water. Both sides of the barrier islands in that area…became covered with oil.  That first year, I saw a solid mass of oil six to ten inches thick surrounding the islands.

…I observed how seals and birds who swam in the water would be blinded and suffocated by contact with the oil.  It took approximately four years for the oil to finally disappear. I have observed that the bowhead whale normally migrates close to these islands in the fall migration … But I observed that for four years after that oil spill, the whales made a wide detour out to sea from these islands.

And because the last point refers more to oil than oil spills, we’re counting it as item three and a half:

3½. The oil industry probably saved the whales.

Cartoon of whales throwing a ball with banners.

On April 20, 1861, this cartoon appeared in an issue of Vanity Fair in the United Kingdom. It hails the “Grand ball given by the whales in honor of the discovery of the oil wells in Pennsylvania.” (Public Domain)

The drilling of the first oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859 touched off the modern oil industry in the United States and beyond—and likely saved the populations of whales, particularly sperm whales, being hunted to near-extinction for their own oil, which was used for lighting and lubrication. The resulting boom in producing kerosene from petroleum delivered what would eventually be a lethal blow to the whaling industry, much to the whales’ delight.


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Two Unlikely Neighbors, Orphans and Industry, Share a Past Along the Delaware River

Sign in a grassy field, in front of an old brick building.

An EPA sign marking the Metal Bank Superfund Site stands near the old St. Vincent’s Orphanage building. (EPA)

When NOAA environmental scientist Alyce Fritz talks about her first visit to the Metal Bank Superfund Site back in 1986, she always mentions the orphanage next door. St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum, as it was named when it was opened by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1857, is separated from the Metal Bank site by a stormwater outfall that drains into the Delaware River just north of the former orphanage.

The Metal Bank Superfund Site and St. Vincent’s are located several miles north of the center of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the banks of the Delaware River in an industrial district that is part of the historic Tacony neighborhood. Located on 29 acres along the river, St. Vincent’s looks like a beautiful old park. What Fritz remembers clearly on that first visit was the children’s playground equipment placed near the river’s edge.

Large brick building with St. Vincint's over the door.

St. Vincent’s, as it appears today on the Delaware River in the Tacony neighborhood of Philadelphia.

On the adjacent 10 acre Metal Bank site, a company called Metal Bank of America, Inc., owned and operated a salvage facility where scrap metal and electric transformers were recycled for over 60 years. Part of the recycling process used by Metal Bank of America, Inc. involved draining oil—loaded with toxic compounds including PCBs—from the used transformers to reclaim copper parts. PCBs are considered a probable cause of cancer in humans and are harmful to clams and fish found in the mudflats and river next to the site.

In the 1970s the U.S. Coast Guard discovered oil releases in the Delaware River and traced them back to the site. Throughout the 1980s, the Metal Bank site’s owners used an oil recovery system to clear the groundwater of PCB-laced oil. However, oil continued to seep from an underground tank at the site. As a result, PCBs and other hazardous substances were left in the soil, groundwater, and river bed sediments at the Metal Bank site and adjacent to St. Vincent’s.

In 1983 the Metal Bank site was placed on the National Priorities List (the Superfund program) and slated for federal cleanup. During the course of the federal cleanup process, various parties were identified as being liable for the contamination at the site, including a number of utility companies that transported their used electrical transformers to the Metal Bank site for disposal or otherwise arranged to dispose of their used electrical transformers at the Metal Bank site.

Federal and local agencies collaborated on a design for cleanup of multiple contaminants of concern at the Metal Bank site. Found in the soil, sediment, groundwater, and surface water, these contaminants included but were not limited to:

  • PCBs.
  • polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (a toxic component of oil).
  • semi-volatile organic compounds.
  • pesticides.
  • metals.

The cleanup, which began in 2008, included excavating soils and river sediments contaminated with PCBs, capping some areas of river sediment, installing a retaining wall near the river, and removing an old transformer oil storage tank. Most of this work was completed in 2010.

Panorama of Metal Bank Superfund Site from the top of steps by the river to the mudflats in 1991. The view is looking south on the Delaware River past St. Vincent’s property. (NOAA) A view of the outflow where water runs into the Delaware River to the south of the Metal Bank site in 2013. (NOAA) A riprap sampling station near an oil slick in 1993 in front of the Metal Bank site. (NOAA) A view of the Delaware River across the mudflats on the Metal Bank Site. (EPA)

Panorama of Metal Bank Superfund Site from the top of steps by the river to the mudflats in 1991. The view is looking south on the Delaware River past St. Vincent’s property. (NOAA) A view of the outflow where water runs into the Delaware River to the south of the Metal Bank site in 2013. (NOAA) A riprap sampling station near an oil slick in 1993 in front of the Metal Bank site. (NOAA) A view of the Delaware River across the mudflats on the Metal Bank Site. (EPA)

As part of the required 5-year review period, monitoring of the Metal Bank site continues. This is to ensure the cleanup is still protecting human health and the environment, including endangered Atlantic Sturgeon and Shortnose Sturgeon. Through successful coordination among the EPA, other federal and state agencies, and some of the potentially responsible parties (PRPs) during the Superfund process, the cleanup has reduced the threat to natural resources in the river and enhanced the recovery of the habitat along the site and St. Vincent’s property.

Over the years, the role of St. Vincent’s has evolved too, from serving as a long-term home for orphans toward one of providing short-term shelter and care to abused and neglected children. Prior to the early 1990s, children who came to St. Vincent’s spent a significant part of their childhood as residents of the institution. In a 1992 article in the Philadelphia Daily News, Sister Kathleen Reilly explained that the children currently cared for by St. Vincent’s range in age from two to 12 years of age and are placed at the home temporarily through an arrangement between the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services and Catholic Social Services. Today St. Vincent’s serves young people mostly through day programs. One thing hasn’t changed though—the lush grounds along the river are still beautiful.

Playground swings at St. Vincent's. Statue of St. Vincent with a child in front of large brick building. Elaborate locked iron gate with a cross. Pavilion with trees and river view.

From top left: A recent photo of part of the play area behind St. Vincent’s on the grounds facing the Delaware River. (NOAA) An old photo of a statue in front of St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum, as it was originally named. (U.S. Library of Congress) The main building of the historic institution in Northeast Philadelphia that first opened its gates in 1857 as St. Vincent’s Orphans Asylum. Photo was taken in 2013. (NOAA) An old photo of a pavilion in the recreational area behind St. Vincent’s main building. The Delaware River and playground equipment is visible in the background. (U.S. Library of Congress)

The federal and state co-trustees for the ongoing Natural Resource Damage Assessment at the Metal Bank site include NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and multiple Pennsylvania state agencies. Collectively, the trustees are working together to further engage with the potentially responsible parties and build upon what has been accomplished at the site by the cleanup.

The trustees have invited the potentially responsible parties to join them in a cooperative effort to improve habitat for the injured natural resources (such as habitat along the river and wetlands) that support the clams, fish, and birds using the Delaware River. In addition, there is the potential for a trail to be routed through the property to a scenic view of St. Vincent’s and the river (an area which is now safe for recreational use). The trustees hope that the natural resources at the Metal Bank site can evolve to become a vibrant part of the historic Tacony neighborhood once again too.


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Over a Century after Texas Strikes Oil, Marsh Restoration Completed for an Old Refinery’s Pollution

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Jessica White.

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

On January 10, 1910, the famous Lucas gusher, named after the persistent oil explorer who drilled the well, struck oil at Spindletop Hill in a geyser that launched more than 100 feet in the air for nine days. This kicked off the Texas oil boom and was the impetus for opening the nearby Gulf Oil Company refinery. (John Trost)

About five miles from the Texas-Louisiana border sits what was once the Gulf Oil Company’s refinery. It’s now owned by Valero, by way of Chevron. But this century-old refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, has been operating since a year after the famous discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901, which came in the form of a more than 100-foot-high, nine-day-long oil gusher.

Spindletop is the salt dome oil field that sparked the oil boom in Texas, ushering in the exploration of oil in the region that has persisted to this day. It also paved the way for oil to become a significant energy source.

Oil Boom not Necessarily a Boon

With the oil boom came a number of hazardous substances to the former Gulf Oil refinery site and its surrounding areas. Historically, the refinery produced jet fuel, gasoline, petrochemicals, and a variety of other oil and chemical products. But this took a toll on the site’s soil, water, and aquatic habitats. Ecological risk assessment studies led by the state of Texas have revealed the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs, a toxic component of oil), lead, zinc, nickel, cadmium, copper, and more in the water and sediment on the site.

In 2004, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Texas natural resource trustees, working cooperatively with Chevron, determined that the public was owed ecological restoration for the contaminated surface water, soil, and sediments at the former Gulf Oil refinery [PDF]. Our assessment showed that we could accomplish this by constructing 83 acres of tidal wetland and 30 acres of coastal wet prairie and improving 1,332 acres of coastal wetlands via new water control structures in the Sabine Lake/Neches River basin.

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat. (Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

A black-necked Stilt and Snowy Egrets in the restored wetland habitat.
(Photo provided courtesy of Chevron.)

Based on this information, the natural resource trustees negotiated with Chevron (which assumed the legal responsibility of the former Gulf Oil site) a $4.4 million settlement of state and federal natural resource damage claims related to the site. This money would go toward implementing the environmental restoration.

The settlement included three projects meant to restore coastal habitat to compensate the public for natural resources lost or injured by historical contamination from the refinery. Two of the projects involved restoring a natural hydrology to coastal wetlands by installing water flow enhancement structures and berms. The third project aimed to create intertidal estuarine marsh and coastal wet prairie by using nearby dredge material.

These projects were a significant undertaking for Chevron and their contractors. They involved several different restoration techniques, some of which had to be modified in the middle of construction to adapt to changes in the field.

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Clumps of planted marsh grass in restored estuarine marsh, looking towards Bridge City. February 1, 2013 (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Building Marsh out of Mud Pancakes

In 2002, Chevron set up a pilot project to determine the feasibility of constructing marsh habitat by placing local dredge material into open-water habitat. The resulting constructed marsh terrace was able to maintain the necessary elevation for native marsh vegetation to take root.

Based on the successful pilot, the full-scale project for building marsh planned to mix dredge material with water, forming slurry that could then be pumped into open water to form mounds and terraces. Once they reached the suitable elevation, the mounds and terraces would later be planted with native marsh grasses. On the other hand, the coastal wet prairie would be constructed by removing dredged sediment to lower the elevation and make it suitable for supporting vegetation found in that habitat type.

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/ National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Established estuarine marsh in the Old River South marsh complex. Note the elevated mounds of mud beneath the marsh grass. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Full-scale construction for the projects kicked off in 2007. This timeline was pushed back a few years from the pilot project because in 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita increased demand for the heavy equipment used in the marsh environment and also damaged habitat and vegetation at the project site.

Another challenge came after Chevron pumped the dredged sediments into the open water to create marsh mounds. Unlike during the pilot project, when the pumped-in sediment stacked well, the sediment used in the marsh construction spread out and formed pancakes instead of the desired mounds. To prevent the sediment from spreading, the restoration team tried changing the pump’s spout, but spraying the dredge slurry into mounds was still a challenge. The mounds became mudflats.

Changing the construction technique again, they next pumped in dredged sediments and then excavated mounds and terraces. This technique had greater success, but in the end, it was still necessary to pump in additional sediment to some areas to achieve the necessary elevations. Because the team was using so much more dredge material than originally planned, they had to find an alternative sediment source from a nearby canal. If they continued taking sediment from the original source, they would have risked lowering the elevation of the area, which was adjacent to the coastal wet prairie and could affect its hydrology.

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

View of Rainbow Bridge from restored estuarine marsh. (NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service/Jamie Schubert)

Despite a number of setbacks, the restoration projects were finished in 2009 and after a monitoring period, the trustees certified them as successfully completed in February of 2013. These projects will improve the fish and shellfish abundance in this part of southeast Texas, provide habitat for wildlife and fish, increase recreational opportunities for bird watching and fishing, and improve the habitat for waterfowl (a benefit for hunters).

The area is also highly visible for anyone driving south through the Beaumont-Port Arthur area. Just look out your window as you cross the Neches River and you’ll see the marsh mounds, coastal wet prairie, and maybe even a few Snowy Egrets on display.

Jessica White.

Jessica White.

Jessica White is a Regional Resource Coordinator with the Assessment and Restoration Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. She has been working with NOAA in the Gulf since 2003 and recently relocated to the Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center. Jessica has assessed and restored Superfund sites in Texas and Louisiana and has supported oil spill and marine debris cleanup. She has a B.S. in Biology from Texas Tech University and a M.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Texas.


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From Dynamite to Deconstruction, or How to Remove Ships from Coral Reefs

USS Guardian grounded on coral reef with tug removing fuel and wastewater.

SULU SEA (Jan. 28, 2013) The U.S. Navy contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. No fuel has leaked since the grounding and all of the approximately 15,000 gallons on board Guardian was safely transferred to Vos Apollo during two days of controlled de-fueling operations on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25. The grounding and subsequent heavy waves hitting Guardian have caused severe damage, leading the Navy to determine the 23-year old ship is beyond economical repair and is a complete loss. With the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it has grounded on the reef, dismantling the ship in sections is the only supportable salvage option. Since Guardian’s grounding, the Navy has been working meticulously to salvage any reusable equipment, retrieve the crew’s personal effects, and remove any potentially harmful materials. The U.S. Navy continues to work in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to safely dismantle Guardian from the reef while minimizing environmental effects. (U.S. Navy)

On January 17, 2013, the Navy mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian ran aground on a coral reef in the Philippines. Salvage experts evaluated various options for removing the ship, including towing or pulling it off the reef, but concluded that such efforts would cause even more damage  to the reef and the ship’s hull. Earlier this month, the Navy decided to dismantle the ship and remove it in smaller sections in order to minimize damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.

The Tubbataha Reef, where the ship grounded in the Sulu Sea, is a marine park and UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for its biodiversity, pristine reefs, and protected nesting habitat for marine birds and sea turtles.

The photos of the stranded ship and the concern about the corals in this part of the world reminded me of a story about the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) vessel Fathomer.  The USC&GS mission was to survey the U.S. coastline and create nautical charts of the coast to help increase maritime safety. Today, this part of NOAA is called the Office of Coast Survey, which produces navigational products, data, and services to keep maritime commerce moving and to protect life and property at sea. (Editor’s note: You can check out their WordPress blog at http://noaacoastsurvey.wordpress.com.)

I came across old photos of the Fathomer when I was working on a project studying the impact of vessel groundings on corals.  That story ended quite differently than the USS Guardian, and shows how environmental protection has become a much bigger concern for salvors.  In the old days, the focus of salvage was strictly to save the ship and cargo, but modern salvors (salvage crews) have a much bigger emphasis on protecting the environment.

On August 15, 1936, the Fathomer dragged anchor in a typhoon and, like the USS Guardian, ended up grounded on a coral reef in the Philippine Islands[1].  At that time, the Philippines were a commonwealth of the United States, and the Fathomer was surveying and charting the islands.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936.

The NOAA ship Fathomer aground on a coral reef in the Philippines after the typhoon of August 15, 1936. (NOAA)

The story of the Fathomer’s grounding and salvage is a good sea story, complete with rum.  All of the crew survived the storm and grounding, but the official history mentions that “Everyone was bruised and suffering from exhaustion and exposure. Two quarts of brandy, stored in the sick bay, were rationed out to all hands, and undoubtedly resulted in no one developing a severe cold or pneumonia.” The entire crew was later commended for their “seamanship, courage and fortitude.”

But what I found most interesting was the salvage efforts.  Buried in the official history are some details that show that coral reef protection was not a concern in 1936.  For example, a pile driver was used to place a “cluster of piles driven on the reef,” and these pilings were “backed by three anchors imbedded in the reef.”  Wire ropes were then used to try to bring the Fathomer upright and haul it off the reef, but those efforts were unsuccessful and ultimately the reef was dynamited and the loose coral was dredged, allowing the Fathomer to be towed to deeper water.

The removal of the USS Guardian is ongoing, but thankfully, it is clear, almost 80 years later, that coral reef protection will be very high on the list of priorities.


[1] The Fathomer worked in the Philippines from 1905-1941. After the 1936 typhoon, Fathomer resumed survey duties in the Philippine Islands. During World War II the ship was used in the defense of the Philippines and was lost in April 1942 when the American and Filipino defenders surrendered the Bataan Peninsula.


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The Western Flyer: A Sunken Piece of Literary History Is Raised from the Depths

By Office of Response and Restoration Scientific Support Coordinator LTJG Alice Drury and National Marine Fisheries Service Senior Scientist Kevin Bailey

Alice Drury: It was lunchtime on September 24, 2012, when I got the call from the U.S. Coast Guard. It involved a sinking boat, some spilled oil, and author John Steinbeck. But I wouldn’t discover this last bit until later.

The F/V Gemini, which turned out to be the F/V Western Flyer, after it was raised from the Swinomish Channel in Washington.

The F/V Gemini, which turned out to be the F/V Western Flyer chartered by John Steinbeck, after it was raised from the Swinomish Channel in Washington in October 2012. Photo used with permission from Capt. Richard Rodriguez, BitterEndBlog.com/All Rights Reserved.

First, I learned that the F/V Gemini, an old fishing boat moored in Washington’s Puget Sound, had sunk directly underneath the Twin Bridges in Swinomish Channel. On its way down, the vessel was slowly leaking diesel. The leak was slow enough and the oily sheen on the surface of the water was so light that the spilled oil was unrecoverable.

Because the water isn’t very deep in that area, the upper portions of the sunken boat were visible above the water. Responders very quickly surrounded the boat with protective boom to contain the leak.

I worked with the oceanographers and biologists in my office to provide scientific support not only for this situation but also the worst-case, “what-if” scenario—in case something goes wrong and all of the Gemini’s fuel spilled into the surrounding waters.

Fortunately later that afternoon, divers succeeded in pumping the remaining fuel off the Gemini, and the response team was coordinating with the owner to raise the vessel from the channel’s bottom.

But it wasn’t until that evening that I noticed in a report the boat was actually named the F/V Western Flyer, not the F/V Gemini, which was only a modern nickname. This led to very interesting—and unexpected—lesson on the history and literature of this creaky wooden boat sunk in the Swinomish Channel.

That’s when NOAA fisheries scientist and budding ship biographer Kevin Bailey—and John Steinbeck—entered the picture.

Kevin Bailey: The day the Western Flyer sank, I was visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, Calif., the boat’s old home in another life. I was there to research a book I am writing about the Flyer and was talking with Tim Thomas, the Sardine Guy, who gives walking tours of the harbor and Cannery Row. I learned about the sinking a few days later when a friend forwarded me a notice linked to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration IncidentNews website.

The Western Flyer is a porthole to the marine environmental history of the northeast Pacific Ocean. Constructed in Tacoma, Wash., in 1937, this wooden-hulled purse seiner lived several lives—surveying in Alaska, fishing for tuna off La Paz, Mexico, seining for sardines near Monterey, Calif.—before it entered literary history as well.

Travels with Steinbeck

Map of the route around the Gulf of California which John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took aboard the F/V Western Flyer.

The route around the Gulf of California which John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts took aboard the F/V Western Flyer in 1940. Credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

In 1940, only a few years after publishing Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, writer John Steinbeck, along with his good friend marine biologist Ed Ricketts, chartered the Western Flyer out of Monterey for $2,500. They were preparing for a six week research cruise to the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

While the Monterey newspaper characterized the group as “perhaps the strangest crew ever assigned aboard a local work boat,” Steinbeck and company managed to sample the marine life while carousing their way down the coast of Baja California into the Gulf of California and back again.

This voyage was made famous in Steinbeck and Ricketts’ book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, the republished narrative of a less successful earlier account and which serves as both a travel log of the trip and a look into Ricketts’ influence on Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s experience on the Western Flyer led him to create elements of his later works, including Cannery Row and The Pearl.

Life after the Sea of Cortez

After Steinbeck and Ricketts’ voyage, the Western Flyer would make its way back to the Pacific Northwest, changing hands several times and taking new shape as a fishing trawler. It would haul tens of thousands of pounds of Pacific Ocean perch, a fish known to live up to a hundred years. It would spend the early 1960s surveying more than 20,000 square miles along British Columbia and Alaska in the most extensive fishery survey of that coast up to that time. It would head to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it would seek out red king crab, with a cook on board who would later turn out to be the father of a character on Deadliest Catch, a TV series about Alaska king crab fishing.

In 1970, the boat’s owner at the time had a penchant for the NASA space missions, renaming the vessel the Gemini. After changing ownership several times again between 1971 and 2010, the Gemini finally ended up in Washington’s Swinomish Slough under the Twin Bridges on State Route 20, where it’s been sitting since 1997, next to the Swinomish Casino and Lodge.

The cover of John Steinbeck's "The Log of the Sea of Cortez," the book written about Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts' expedition on the F/V Western Flyer in 1940.

The cover of John Steinbeck’s “The Log of the Sea of Cortez,” the book written about Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts’ expedition on the F/V Western Flyer in 1940.

The Gemini/Western Flyer’s most recent owner is an Irish immigrant, a real estate developer living in Key West, Fla. He owns several downtown buildings in John Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif. When he bought the boat in 2010, he had a plan to restore the Western Flyer, somehow get the boat down to Salinas, and park it inside one of the buildings as part of the decor of a restaurant and boutique hotel.

A Not-so-final Resting Place

Meanwhile, the boat sat idle for nearly two years—until it sank this past September. The owner told me the boat sank quickly to the bottom because a couple of planks had given way.

I watched a crew refloat the boat at the beginning of October. It seemed hesitant to rise off the bottom where it had rested in the soft mud of the Swinomish Channel for two weeks. But finally the workers succeeded in lifting the vessel, pumping the water out, and putting a temporary patch over the hole.

The owner is sincere about his plan to restore the boat in some fashion, but because of the damage from neglect and sinking, it is going to be an expensive venture, maybe exceeding $600,000.  There’s a nonprofit group called the Western Flyer Project that wants to bring the ship back to Monterey for restoration, but they don’t have the resources to do it right now. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to this historic cultural icon, as it continues its rise from the depths.

Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury.

LTJG Alice Drury graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Environmental Studies in 2008 and shortly thereafter joined the NOAA Corps. After Basic Officer Training Class at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., LTJG Drury was assigned to NOAA Ship McArthur II for two years. LTJG Drury is now assigned as the Regional Response Officer in OR&R’s Emergency Response Division. In that assignment she acts as assistant to the West Coast, Alaska, and Oceania Scientific Support Coordinators.

Kevin Bailey

Kevin Bailey

Kevin McLean Bailey grew up in the hometown of John Steinbeck, Salinas, Calif. He started his career as a marine fisheries biologist and ecologist in 1974 after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He later obtained his PhD from the University of Washington. He is a Senior Scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. His book on the Alaska pollock fishery, Billion Dollar Fish, is to be published in April 2013 by University of Chicago Press. He is currently writing a book on the Western Flyer and the environmental history of the west coast.

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