West Coast Region: Maritime Heritage

Chumash paddle tomol in the Channel Islands Sanctuary
Chumash paddle tomol in the Channel Islands Sanctuary (Schwemmer/NOAA)

The West Coast Region seeks to support research into human connections to the sea that include indigenous native cultures, seafaring traditions and the discovery and protection of maritime heritage resources. Today indigenous people continue their seafaring cultural activities that include building traditional watercraft and traversing sanctuary waters. Maritime heritage resources such as shipwrecks, and those objects which remain in place to remind us of historic activities such as lighthouses, historic wharves, docks and piers, populate the coastline from the State of Washington to California.

Gold Rush steamer Winfield Scott lost 1853. Channel Islands Sanctuary  Deborah Marx
Gold Rush steamer Winfield Scott lost 1853. Channel Islands Sanctuary (Deborah Marx)

For hundreds of years, mariners transiting this region have been faced with prevailing winds, extreme weather conditions and natural hazards. Early maritime activities resulted in many ships running aground or sinking within the dangerous cold waters off the West Coast of North America, leaving us today with hundreds of historic shipwrecks, some recorded and many still to be discovered. These wrecks reveal the diverse range of activities and nationalities that traversed the coastal maritime trade routes and are time-capsules of our Nation's seafaring past. They include vessels engaged in various trades such as the California Gold-Rush, passenger and cargo, lumber, international coal and grain, fisheries, military and island commerce to name a few.

This rich maritime heritage stands as a testament to the cultural importance and historic value in the region. As of 2009, a total of 70 heritage sites have been discovered and documented in the region. Potential and documented submerged heritage sites for West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries include: Olympic Coast - 200, Gulf of the Farallones - 200, Monterey Bay - 300, Channel Islands - 150, and Cordell Bank - 1.

Austria shipwreck field survey Olympic Coast Sanctuary OCNMS
Austria shipwreck field survey Olympic Coast Sanctuary (OCNMS)

Heritage resources also include military aircraft lost in the region. A key mandate of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is explore, assess and protect submerged archaeological heritage resources and to share expedition discoveries with the public. A recent expedition in the region was the exploration of the dirigible USS Macon in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The 785-foot airship, along with four Sparrowhawk biplanes, went down off Point Sur in 1935. On February 12, 2010 commemorating the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the airship, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary announced the USS Macon listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Propeller steamer S.S. Lewis lost 1853 Greater Farallones Sanctuary
Propeller steamer S.S. Lewis lost 1853. Greater Farallones Sanctuary

An educational resource for teachers, students, and researchers is the West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries Shipwreck Database which provides more in depth vessel histories and an online curriculum. In 2011, the West Coast Region participated in an 11-day U.S. Coast Guard assessment of the Union Oil Company tanker S.S. Montebello that was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1941 off Cambria, California near the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS). The first manned submersible visual survey of the 457-foot tanker was conducted in 1996 in collaboration with NOAA's West Coast National Undersea Research, and the second survey was completed in 2003 by the MBNMS. Both surveys determined the 18 cargo, 12 summer and 2 bunker oil tanks had not been breached by the torpedo impact and the shipwreck could retain over 3 million gallons of crude oil. In 2008 the West Coast Region assisted the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the State of Oregon's Parks and Recreation Department in solving the identity of a mystery shipwreck that uncovered on the north spit at Coos Bay, Oregon. Articles featuring the collaborative effort were published in Oregon Coast and Sea History magazines. To learn more about maritime heritage resources within the National Marine Sanctuary System visit the National Maritime Heritage Program.