A pair of maritime detectives has embarked on an unprecedented two-year mission to uncover possibly hundreds of shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea near the Golden Gate Bridge and the Gulf of the Farallones.
The sleuths are looking for shipwrecks buried in the dark waters of the Pacific Ocean so that they can learn about the past, teach scientists about what can be preserved in marine conditions and infuse a sense of wonder when unearthing stories about people who lived and worked on the sea, and who sometimes lost their lives.
Two days into their trek, they’ve discovered three shipwrecks and an “unidentified target.”
"These are really true time capsules telling us about a time and period of the people, as well as the ships themselves," said Bob Schwemmer, the West Coast coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Sanctuaries.
The NOAA team invited NBC Bay Area as the only television station aboard Sept. 12 when they set off from Sausalito looking for a Clipper ship built in 1855 called the "Noonday." An Associated Press reporter was also invited.
Lead Maritime Archaeologist and Chief Scientist James Delgado didn't conclusively see the “Noonday” wreck the team had been hoping to discover because it was buried in too much mud. But he and Schwemmer did locate and document three other finds that were lost at sea more than 100 years ago.
"You never know exactly what you'll find, especially after a century or more after a ship is lost," Delgado said. "You also find that in some cases, you don't find exactly what you were looking for — you find something else."
Delgado says their mission to find the "graveyard of ships" off the California coast is the "first systematic investigation" of its kind in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the waters by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
The work comes out of NOAA’s operating budget, and is part of the ongoing work of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
"The Gulf of the Farallones is well known for its sharks, its seabirds, its whales," Delgado said. "It’s less known for its shipwrecks and there are more than 300 of them here."
Delgado, who now lives in Washington, D.C., and is the director of maritime heritage for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, is originally from San Jose. He was once the chief scientist for the first full mapping of the Titanic site.
Delgado began focusing on the waters of the Golden Gate and the Gulf of the Farallones because he estimates there are about 300 ships that sank at sea clustered within a few miles from the iconic San Francisco Bay Area bridge. He’s been working on mapping out all these wrecks since the 1980s.
What propels Delgado forward is his sense of history, and what can be learned from the discoveries lost at sea.
"The wrecks represent nearly two centuries of activity, tragedies, and unique and compelling human stories," he said.
Plus, there is the sheer scientific boon.
"The wrecks are also laboratories in which we can learn more about what happens when we humans place things in the sea," he said,"in terms of environmental changes, impacts to marine life, and how some wrecks become artificial reefs and habitat."
When Delgado and Schwemmer set out last week, their sonar detected the boat they’ve been looking for: A Clipper ship called “Noonday,” which launched from Boston and was approaching the San Francisco harbor in 1863, when it hit a rock and started to fill with water before going down to the bottom of the Pacific. While the scientists found the wreck, they couldn’t see it because it was completely buried in too much mud.
“We were still stoked,” Delgado said.
What they were able to see was the “SS Selja,” a century-old steamship whose wreck off the Point Reyes Coast in 1910 led to years of legal action that ended in the United States Supreme Court. The case is still cited as a key ruling on a key principle: the rules of the road, where both “masters” were held accountable for their actions.
"What we saw on the bottom for the first time in 104 years since the accident was how fast and violent the end of the Selja was," Delgado said. "It was shattered, broken and twisted."
Delgado also said the crew found a second wreck in 187 feet of water off the Farallone Islands that is not mentioned in the history books. It seems to be steam tugboat, which looks similar to the 1907-built, National Historic Landmark tugboat Hercules at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier. He and Schwemmer also found a second mystery wreck, which he described as an “unidentified target.”
The finds are downright “exciting,” Delgado said, along with the fact that their scientists on board have also noted nine species of rockfish, wolf eels, a large octopus and a ling cod.
“It’s not about finding a specific wreck,” Delgado said. “It’s all about finding out exactly what lays down there.”
NBC Bay Area's Joe Rosato Jr. contributed to this report.