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Dec 01 2005

Olympic Wreck Mitigation

Wreck of the Olympic - Introduction

In early December as I was reading a posting from Orange County Dive News, I came across a peculiar message. Someone had seen an abandoned gill net while diving on a wreck called the Olympic. I quickly emailed the person back and asked for more specifics. I had never heard of this wreck and had no idea where it was. After several emails back and forth, I got the low down.

The Olympic is a 258 foot long vessel that was built in 1877. It was used as a freight vessel initially and then converted to a fishing barge, where she sat just outside the break wall off of San Pedro. One foggy morning in 1940, a Japanese freighter was trying to enter the LA harbor and was going way too fast for conditions and rammed the Olympic. When the captain of the freighter realized what had happened, he quickly put his ship in reverse and left a gaping whole on the starboard side of the Olympic. Water rushed in so quickly that the ship went down in less than 2 minutes, pulling 8 people to the bottom with her.

The wreck now sits in about 100 feet of water, roughly 4.5 miles off the coast of San Pedro. For more details on the fascinating history of the Olympic please click here. 

We needed to get as much information as we could on the wreck, so I contacted the guru of research, Bruce Beckman, and asked for his help. Within 2 days he had the info we needed plus the GPS coordinates. I then started the process of putting together a skilled dive team that would volunteer to go out and see if we could find the reported gillnet. The first person that naturally came to mind was dive instructor extraordinaire, Chris Bell. He had never dived on the Olympic before, but didn't hesitate to lend his expertise.

So on December 4, 2005, we headed out from the Cabrillo Beach boat launch and headed out to sea. Onboard was Jim Lieber as first mate, with Chris Bell, Erik Burrows and myself as the dive team. It was a pretty calm day, with the seas at 2 to 3 feet. It only took us about 30 minutes to reach the site. The wreck is not marked with a buoy, so we only had the GPS coordinates to go on. We took our first dive and entered the chilly cold waters (approx 55 degrees F).

When we hit the bottom, our depth gauges indicated 98 feet, exactly what the website said it would be. It did not prepare me for the cold waters though (52 degrees)! At this point I was seriously contemplating my next major purchase, a drysuit, which Chris and Erik were sporting to my chagrin. We spent about 20 minutes searching around and found some rope, an anchor with chain, a fishing pole and not much else. After returning to the boat, we did our surface interval for over an hour and my feet were still blue. Needless to say I did not go for the second dive.

We moved the boat about 100 feet due west and dropped anchor hoping this would be the magic spot. It was not. Chris and Erik found another anchor and line, some more rope and a lot of sand. So we headed back to port scratching our heads trying to figure out how we were ever going to find this wreck.

Two weeks later on December 17, 2005, we headed back out again to find the elusive Olympic. The crew this time was Jared Rubin as first mate, with Chris Bell, Erik Burrows and (first time member) Phil Robledo as the dive team. The seas were really rough for the Garibaldi at 3 to 4 feet. As Jared piloted us toward the site we were getting pounded by the waves, getting significant spray inside the boat. Everyone was getting soaked. At one point when we were going down the back side of a big swell and were in the bottom of the trough, we took on water over the stern. John Milligan's custom designed and newly installed bilge pump was being put to the ultimate test. After about half an hour and contemplating calling off the dive, we were greeted to clear skies and a calm sea. It seemed like Poseidon was on our side.

We had gotten more information during the two weeks interim, and were now armed with two depth finders. This time we would use the flat bottom surface to our advantage, knowing that the ship's bow protrudes 20 to 30 feet from the bottom.

The GPS got us close and we circled the area for a few minutes before the depth finders indicated a significant object directly below us. I was too cold and wet to go for the first dive. So down Chris, Erik and Phil went. Within 15 minutes we saw 2 lift bags floating at the surface. They had found two lobster traps. About 30 minutes later they surfaced and were thrilled with what they found, the Olympic.

Just hearing their description of the excellent wreck and the better-than-usual visibility got me very excited and I decided to join them for the second dive. It was a ghostly sight, visibility was about 40 feet and we could see that we were coming upon her about midsection. When we got there I was amazed at all the life that had taken ahold on the skeleton of the Olympic - literally millions of club anemones (strawberry, orange and pink) covered every available surface that would get sunlight. Gorgonians were prolific, as were hundreds of rubberlip surfperch, seniorita's and thousands of blacksmith.

As we made our way to the bow, I was dazzled not only by the amount of living creatures on it, but also the amount of fishing nets strangling this would-be artificial reef. It seems like the Olympic is an oasis for life and death as well. It appeared to me that there were probably 100 discarded nets draped all over the structure of the wreck. With so many fish around the wreck, the fishermen drop nets around this area all the time. Sometimes the nets get snagged on the wreck's superstructure and they have to cut them loose from their boat because they have no way to go down there themselves to release them.

We also found three more abandoned lobster traps. We hooked up one more trap to our lift bag and sent it to the surface. We had to leave the others because I knew the boat would not hold them all. We then proceeded to start cutting some of the netting and took what we could safely remove back to the surface with us.

As we headed back to port the boat was riding very low in the water. The Garibaldi was loaded to the max. We had 4 wet and tired divers with all their gear and over 250 pounds of traps, nets and one spear gun, all in a 24 foot boat. Even though we didn't find the abandoned gill net, we found our next project: Ridding the Olympic of all the nets that are draped around her.

Stay tuned for more exciting reports of ODA's clean-up of this historic underwater landmark. Our goal is to remove most if not all the fishing nets tangled on the Olympic so that it can properly serve as a host for sea life and an excellent wreck dive destination. Also, we feel the 8 people who died when she sunk over 66 years ago would prefer their grave site to be free of ugly nets and traps.

Kurt Lieber
Founder & President
Ocean Defenders Alliance

 
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