The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is studying sonar images to see if a historic shipwreck off the Central Coast poses an oil pollution threat.
Last week, MBARI researchers sent an autonomous underwater vehicle down to the wreck of the S.S. Montebello in an effort to assess the condition of the oil tanker, which has sat at the bottom of the sea floor for the past 70 years after it was sunk by a Japaneses submarine five miles off the coast of San Simeon.
Researchers are hoping to determine the full extent and overall layout of the wreckage, as well as to better understand the nature and stability of the surrounding sea floor by looking at the sonar images.
"Although it is still uncertain whether or not the three million gallons of oil loaded onto the vessel before its departure on December 23, 1941 remain in its tanks, we aren’t taking any chances,” said Steve Edinger, Administrator for the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response in a news release. “We are taking proactive steps to determine if there is a pollution threat and, if so, to prevent an oil release that could impact California’s coastal areas.”
There are 16 hours of acoustical images recorded by one of MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicles for scientists to review.
Chris Grech, deputy director of marine operations at MBARI, said that once the sonar images are processed they will be used to evaluate the structure of the wreck and find out what hazards are present.
The ship sits nearly 1,000 feet below frigid ocean water, and if there is oil on board, scientists said it has taken the form of a giant tar ball or a huge tube of Jell-O.
Scientists said that if the oil comes loose, it would float to the surface and spread up across the coast once it is heated by the sun.
The amount of oil believed to be on the Montebello is about one third released by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.
The information from the images will be used to coordinate more dives planned for next summer and fall to further asses the vessel's condition and whether there is oil in its tanks.
Next year's dives will include sending a remotely operated vehicle down to the Montebello to obtain video of its physical condition.