It has been more than 60 years since the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach sank off the coast of California near the Golden Gate Bridge—but that doesn’t mean the damage caused by the massive shipwreck is over. Last December, nine oiled birds washed ashore between Santa Cruz and Monterey, coated in sludge still leaking out of the cargo vessel. The birds have since been taken in by the International Bird Rescue’s wildlife center (five have already been released in full health—the other four died). But it still brings up important questions about the shipwreck and its lingering repercussions.
Here’s a look at what happened, why the wreck is still hurting birds, and what can be done about it.
The year was 1953. The Jacob Luckenbach, a 469-foot freighter, departed from San Francisco on its way to Korea with military supplies…but it didn’t get very far. The ship collided with the Hawaiian Pilot in the Gulf of the Farallones and sank in about 180 feet of water—and with it, the half-million gallons of bunker fuel it carried. The crewmen were safely transferred off the sinking ship onto the intact Hawaiian Pilot, but the oil, which remained contained on board, was lost below.
Then, starting in the 1970s, oil began lapping up onto California’s central coast at intermittent times, leaving oiled seabirds struggling on the beaches from Bodega Bay to Monterey Bay. It wasn’t until 2002 that these mystery spills were traced back to the Jacob Luckenbach. But by that point, significant harm had already been done: Between 1990-2003 over 50,000 birds from 50 species were killed, including Common Murres, Northern Fulmars, Red Phalaropes, Cassin’s Auklets, Western Grebes, and Brown Pelicans. Two species listed under the Endangered Species Act were also affected: Western Snowy Plovers and Marbled Murrelets.
“Hundreds of oiled birds were showing up on the coast and we analyzed their feather samples,” says Steve Hampton from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It turned out that 97 percent of the oiled birds matched each other; the oil matched.”
This meant that the oil was coming from the same source. To pinpoint that source, each bird’s route was traced backwards—based on wind direction and ocean currents—to determine where it had been foraging. And incredibly, their paths all converged at one spot: The site of the sunken ship.
So what was to be done about the lingering threat? The U.S. Coast Guard embarked on a 10-month, $20-million mission to remove the oil from the pollution-spewing vessel. A team of divers used vacuum hoses to suck the oil out of the ship to a barge stationed on the surface. But, in the end, it was only possible to extract about 100,000 gallons of oil; the rest—close to 30,000 gallons—was sealed inside the Jacob Luckenbach.
“It was really dangerous work,” says Hampton. “The oil had spread to over 30 different compartments within the ship, and access to these pockets was limited. Working in those conditions there was no guaranty that they sealed everything up. That’s why there’s still oil leakage from time to time.”
For the most part though, the cleanup efforts seem to have worked—in the years since, the number of unexplained oiled birds washing up has declined precipitously. Currently, there are no plans to retrieve the oil left behind, since it seems costly and inefficient to carry on, says Hampton.
But, after a big swell event in December of last year, staff from the International Bird Recue recovered nine oiled birds from beaches in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties: One Red-necked Grebe, one Western Grebe, one Pacific Loon, and six Common Murres.
Suspicions that the infamous sunken ship might be involved yet again spurred an investigation. Feather samples from these birds were sent to a lab for analysis and the results were announced last month. Sure enough, the oil matched the Jacob Luckenbach.
“There have been winters when a few oiled birds matched the Luckenbach, but this winter’s nine birds might be the most,” Hampton says. “It’s a dramatic improvement from the past and clearly we’ve stopped nearly all of the oiling.”
Luckily, there are longer-term solutions in the works as well. Because the company that owned the Jacob Luckenbach no longer exists, about $22 million in funds have been allocated under the Oil Pollution Act for 14 restoration projects. These projects, approved in 2010, are geared towards restoring the avian populations that have been affected the most.
“It’s not their fault they got covered with oil,” says Michelle Bellizzi, manager of the International Bird Rescue’s wildlife center, “so we feel that it is our responsibility to repair that damage.”
While the Jacob Luckenbach was the source of immense devastation, at least one good thing resulted from its destruction: It has inspired the investigation (by various agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) into other sunken vessels—like the Montebello oil tanker, which turned out to be empty—that could be leaking oil now or in the future. Of the 20,000 or so sunken vessels in U.S. waters, 36 have been stamped as high priority pollution risks.
“There are probably some other sunken ships out there that we should be worrying about,” says Hampton. “And it’s because of the Luckenbach that this has become an issue that’s on people’s minds.”