In July 1953, a steel-hulled freighter named the Jacob Luckenbach sailed out of San Francisco harbor carrying war supplies bound for Korea, including 457,000 gallons of bunker oil. Less than 20 miles beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, it collided with another ship, the Hawaiian Pilot, and sank in the Gulf of the Farallones.
It was an unfortunate and costly accident, but all the crewmen were safely transferred to the Hawaiian Pilot, and everyone assumed the Jacob Luckenbach would lie quietly on the ocean floor until it was eventually corroded away by the elements and time.
In the 1970s, though, California’s central coast began experiencing mysterious intermittent oil spills that left hundreds of oil-covered seabirds struggling on beaches. The puzzling spills continued, resulting in the deaths of more than 50,000 birds between 1990 and 2003.
In 2002, after retracing the birds’ paths and studying ocean currents, the culprit was finally located. Far from resting peacefully in its watery grave 180 feet below the surface, the Jacob Luckenbach had been leaking oil for years, an estimated 300,000 gallons or more.
In the summer of 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard undertook a daunting 10-month, $20 million mission to suck out the remaining oil from the submerged ship. However, because the oil was contained in more than 30 hard-to-reach compartments, the team of divers extracted only about 100,000 gallons. An estimated 29,000 gallons had to be sealed inside the ship in hopes it would remain in place.
It’s highly likely that some sunken ships off U.S. coasts collectively contain millions of gallons of oil. As corrosion eats away at their tanks, they will almost certainly start leaking — or already have. (Photo: Jung Hsuan/Shutterstock)
Some 20,000 shipwrecks litter U.S. waters, but most don’t pose any threat because their oil has already spilled out, they never carried any to begin with or the ships have decayed because they were made of wood or other less durable materials.
However, a few sunken ships along American coasts, like the Jacob Luckenbach, continue to keep officials up at night because it’s highly likely they collectively contain millions of gallons of oil. The fear is they will almost certainly start leaking — or already have — as corrosion eats further into their tanks.
Imagine dozens of sunken ships capable of slowly releasing as much oil as high-profile spills like the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which poured more than 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. And that’s just in the U.S.; more than 8,500 potentially hazardous shipwrecks exist around the world that could contain up to 6 billion gallons of oil, according to a 2005 report.
In an effort to get a handle on the ticking time bombs under America’s coastal waters, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report in 2013 with a list of 87 deteriorating sunken ships it believes present the greatest oil pollution threat. NOAA singled out 36 of these sunken ships as higher-priority risks due to their age, the amount of oil they once carried and their potential to wreak environmental havoc on coastal areas and marine life. Among the top potential offenders are the Jacob Luckenbach and several tankers torpedoed by German U-boats (submarines) along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts during World War II. The hope is that authorities will create contingency plans to either regularly monitor all 87 wrecks or evaluate them further (the exact location of some aren’t known) to devise ways to remove oil or deal with leaks.
As if to highlight the urgency of the problem, staff from the International Bird Rescue last December recovered nine newly oiled seabirds from California beaches. Lab tests revealed the oil came from (you guessed it) the Jacob Luckenbach, apparently leaking again after being sealed 14 years ago.
Here’s a sampling of seven more shipwrecks that are either known oil leakers or may be soon.
Named the highest-risk wreck on NOAA’s list, the tanker Gulfstate was torpedoed by a German U-boat in April 1943 and sank 2,900 feet below the ocean surface off the Florida Keys. More than 40 crew members died.
The ship, which was en route from Galveston, Texas, to Portland, Maine, has never been found, but researchers worry it may still contain a good portion of the 3.5 million gallons of bunker oil it was carrying. A spill not only threatens Florida’s coral reefs and sea life, but also coastal communities as far north as North Carolina’s Outer Banks. NOAA has recommended the vessel be located to determine its condition and learn how much oil (if any) still remains inside.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Arizona was bombed and sank in a surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, it was loaded with 1.5 million gallons of bunker oil. Although much of that fuel was lost in the fiery explosion that killed 1,177 sailors and Marines on board and burned for two and a half days, an estimated 500,000 gallons remain inside.
In fact, the Arizona’s contents are slowly seeping into the harbor — between two and nine quarts a day. The oil is visible on the water’s surface at the USS Arizona Memorial on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and visitors have dubbed it “black tears.” Experts believe it’s only a matter of time before the 75-year-old shipwreck corrodes enough to release the whole load. The National Park Service and other governmental agencies are studying the rate of oil leakage and hull deterioration, but remain reluctant to tamper with the Arizona because it’s considered a war grave.
In October 1937, the tank barge Argo sank in Lake Erie northeast of Sandusky, Ohio, during a violent storm. Laden with over 200,000 gallons of crude oil and benzol (a petroleum distillate used as motor fuel), the wreck wasn't found for nearly 80 years. And during that time, there were repeated reports of an oily sheen on the water near where it likely sank. For this reason, NOAA included the Argo on its list, ranking it the riskiest of five wrecks in the Great Lakes.
Last August, a shipwreck hunter finally located the Argo, and reported a strong smell of solvent in the area and discoloration on the water’s surface. In November, Coast Guard divers confirmed it still contained oil and was leaking benzol. Crews removed what remained, but tests are ongoing to determine whether sediment on the lake bottom is contaminated and whether cleanup will be necessary.
Joseph M. Cudahy
In May 1942, the Joseph M. Cudahy was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico about 125 miles west of Naples, Florida. The tanker, traveling from Texas to Pennsylvania, carried more than 300,000 gallons of oil. It burned and sank, killing three officers and 24 crewmen. The remaining 10 crew members were rescued.
A wreck presumed to be the Joseph M. Cudahy rests on the ocean floor some 145 feet below where it reportedly went down, though the sea-life-encrusted tanker has never been positively identified. Divers and boaters have seen surface oil slicks there for years, which often get worse after storms and after divers enter the submerged wreck. NOAA named the Joseph M. Cudahy one of 17 sunken ships that should be further evaluated to determine how much oil is still on board and whether to siphon it out.
One ship NOAA didn’t include on its list (but probably should have) is the W.E. Hutton. In July 2014, the Coast Guard received a call from a North Carolina fisherman who reported seeing “black globs” rising to the ocean surface and an oily sheen several miles offshore of Cape Lookout. A flyover of the area confirmed the presence of oil — likely coming from a sunken steam-powered tanker called the W.E. Hutton, which was torpedoed off the coast of North Carolina by a German U-boat in March 1942.
NOAA had earlier decided the tanker probably no longer contained the 2.7 million gallons of heating oil it was transporting from Texas to Pennsylvania when it sank. However, after the fisherman’s discovery, Coast Guard dive crews located a finger-sized hole in the rusting hull that was indeed leaking oil. The hole was repaired, but no one knows how much oil had already spilled into the ocean or for how long. The sealed tanker will be regularly monitored, and if it starts leaking again, the oil may be removed.
The tanker Coimbra, carrying more than three million gallons of lubricating oil bound for England from New York, was torpedoed by a German U-boat in January 1942. It broke into three parts and sank off the coast of Long Island. The explosion was so massive that residents in the Hamptons some 27 miles away could see the flames out at sea. The captain and more than 30 crew members died.
Despite the violent explosion that likely burned away much of the ship’s oil cargo, there have been several mysterious oil spills and incidents of tar balls washing ashore on Long Island beaches over the years. Many experts believe the Coimbra is the likely culprit and could still contain over a million gallons of oil.
For this reason, NOAA ranks the submerged vessel among its 36 highest-risk wrecks and included it on its list of 17 sunken ships that need further evaluation.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was built in 1958 and was 729 feet long. (Photo: Greenmars/Wikimedia Commons)
The tragic sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald during a thrashing storm on Lake Superior in 1975 was immortalized by singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot in his hit, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." The freighter, carrying 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan, broke in two (presumably from giant waves and gale-force, 70 mile-per-hour winds) and sank in 530 feet of water. There were no distress calls, and the bodies of all 29 crew members were never found.
The Edmund Fitzgerald is one of five Great Lakes shipwrecks on NOAA’s list of potential threats. It’s classified as a medium pollution risk and no oil leaks have ever been reported, but many experts worry it may still contain more than 50,000 gallons of the highly destructive heavy-grade fuel oil used to power it.