Shipwreck Detectives

Making Waves: Episode 129

The Latest Discovery

In November 2014, a joint archaeological expedition led by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program brought back the first-ever 3-D images of the City of Rio de Janeiro, considered by many historians as the "Titanic of the Golden Gate." In this episode, we hear about this and many other shipwrecks from NOAA's Robert Schwemmer, co-leader of a two-year study to locate and document shipwrecks in Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the surrounding area.


HOST: This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm Troy Kitch. On Feb. 22, 1901, a steamship arriving from Hong Kong named the SS City of Rio de Janeiro struck rocks and sank in minutes. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in San Francisco history. It happened near San Francisco, close to where the Golden Gate Bridge is today. And yet, we only confirmed the location of this wreck in November 2014. Today's guest, NOAA's Robert Schwemmer, picks up the story from here.

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: These people are so close to land. They were an hour away from the dock, safety. They travelled all the way from Hong Kong and Japan. Immigrants. America was their new home. They were at the doorstep. So close. And they would go down … in sight of San Francisco. And their bodies were strewn. The one's that actually went in the water were all the way up Raccoon Straights near Berkeley all the way out to the heads of San Francisco, but many were in their berths down below. Never had a chance to get up on the deck, because as the ship struck Fort Point, it broke its back, slid off, the ebbing tide pushed the ship back to sea, and it went to the bottom in ten minutes.

HOST: Robert Schwemmer is the West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA's Office National Marine Sanctuaries. He's co-leading a two-year effort of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program to locate and document shipwrecks in and around California's Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary. Robert, for so many of us - me included - shipwrecks seem full of mystery and adventure … but the story of this shipwreck is a reminder that these are real life-and-death events in history. Could you tell us a bit more about the Rio de Janeiro?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: I'd love to go down and see this beautiful iron hull, but she's at the bottom of a slope of mud and sediment has been coming down for 113 years and she's being covered, she's entombed. You can see the symmetrical lines of the bow of the ship, which is great, but over time the ship will be totally covered. And, you know, being a gravesite…that's OK. When you think about, you know, 128 lives were lost that day. The Chinese crewmen were having difficulty because even though they had these lifeboat drills over the years, they never actually launched a lifeboat. They deployed to the lifeboat in part of the drills. And there were only two of the Chinese crewmen who spoke English and could translate, which worked just fine in their normal course of their day to day duties of putting coal in the boilers or doing whatever chores, everything was hand gestures. It all worked fine until disaster struck. And they didn't have the knowledge to launch the lifeboats. And the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was held liable. And, yeah, of 210 on board, 128 were lost.

HOST: Many think of shipwrecks based on what we've seen in the movies, but of course that's not the case here since this wreck is covered in sediment. So since you can't get to it with divers or a remotely operated vehicle, you used three-dimensional sonar to map it. Can you talk a bit about this tool?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: We have that Hollywood vision of what a shipwreck looks like, but in reality out here — especially in the Pacific where we have a lot of turbulent water, currents, and so on, and not always the best visibility, you know using this multibeam 3D sonar imagery really gives people the big picture, because if we were to go down there with the traditional ROV and map these sites, especially around the Golden Gate, where the visibility is very low and the currents are strong, all you would see would be like using a flashlight going into a cave, what's in the beam of that light. That's all you would see and it would be not a clear view. And with 3D imagery now, we can just turn all the lights on in the cave and show the entire wreck.

HOST: So you try to tie together the shipwreck imagery you gather with historical documentation.

ROBERT SCHWEMMER:  What did the ship look like before?  What were the people that served aboard that ship? We have those images, and many of those images come from our partners like at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. So, we need all that information to really, clearly show the linkages and the history and the stories. Otherwise, people would just be looking at 3D imagery and not at what the ship actually looked like in the 19th century. Shipwrecks are amazing time capsules, providing maritime archaeologists and historians with a snapshot in a given day in history. If you think about it. It's not contaminated by modern events; it's a clear shot of that given day. You know, we learn about the technology of that period, we learn how the ships were built. You know, we don't have ships plans or modern drawings like we do today, so we have to methodically map and survey these shipwrecks and kind of rebuild them and see how they were constructed.

HOST: But before you do this, you have to first find where the wrecks are and identify them. Would you say that this step is the hardest part of the work?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: It's a lifetime of work, locating shipwrecks. Channel Islands, where I've been working … I've probably been diving shipwrecks there for nearly 40 years and of the hundreds of shipwrecks in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, we've located just over thirty. And those are the larger ships. So finding shipwrecks is a long, tedious process. We are very fortunate off of the Gulf of the Farallones that we've had such success in our first year's mission out there.

HOST: Let's talk a bit about the first year of the mission. Aside from confirming the location of the Rio de Janeiro, your team has so far confirmed the discovery of the 1910 shipwreck SS Selja, identified an early steam tugboat wreck, located the 1863 wreck of the clipper ship Noonday, and completed the first detailed map of the steamship SS City of Chester. All of this was just in the Golden Gate area. And this all happened just with the first two missions of this two year study. Not a bad start. So what's a typical day like doing this kind of 'shipwreck detective' work?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: My role is to serve as the cruise leader for the expedition. As co-principal investigator, along with Dr. James Delgado, who is the chief scientist of this two-year mission. So I basically conduct the research on the shipwreck targets and come up with a list of assessments for our research plan. I reach out to the private community to provide additional support in multibeam sonar acquisition of potential archaeological targets. I prepare media B-roll, which includes historic vessel images and multibeam images, and the cruise plans. So we're involved, in the day-to-day operations, on-site, as a scientist, as an archaeologist, looking at multiple sonar targets out there, some of which turn out just to be a lot of mud. We 'mow the grass' with an ROV and look at a lot of mud. And then we come up, and all of the sudden we'll see scours, and we'll see deposits of shells in those scours, we'll start to see fish, and we know we're on to something that's got habitat, hopefully structure, and, in this case, for the work that we did this year in the Gulf of the Farollones, we found remains of four shipwrecks, including a 170-foot tugboat that we had no record of being lost out there by Southeast Farallon Island.

HOST: So you mentioned that you reach out to the private community. This isn't just a NOAA effort?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: For the expeditions we just completed in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay and off the Golden Gate, I've worked with the shipwreck sport diving community. There are a couple of divers — Robert Lanham and Bruce Lanham — that have been diving shipwrecks in this region since the 1960s. They have a wealth of information, they've been very forthcoming in sharing locations on known discoveries and giving really detailed site descriptions. And other volunteers … Gary Fabian, he's in Central Texas. I've never met the man, but he has volunteered hundreds of hours scouring over multibeam data that we've provided him and he's been very central in helping us pinpoint multibeam features that have manmade symmetrical lines and so on that indicate we may have a possible shipwreck. And that's again where I come in to it and start doing the research along with Dr. Delgado to see if we can put a name to the multibeam or go out and see if we do have a shipwreck and then work backwards and try to put the history together based on site assessment underwater. We also work really closely with the National Park Service. But in the Golden Gate, we do have a lot of data sharing. There are some great historians there that have a wealth of knowledge. We take them out on the expeditions; we involve them in our media outreach events. And the Maritime Research Center at San Francisco, San Francisco National Historical Park, they've got a wealth of historic images and they have been very key in our outreach and our media side by providing to our partnership a lot of historic images for the expeditions we've been doing off San Francisco.

HOST: That there's a shipwreck sport diving community is a good indicator that there are a lot of wrecks in the region around San Francisco. How many wrecks are we talking about in the greater Gulf of the Farallones?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: If you were to include the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, nearly 1,300 square miles by itself; the northern Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from San Mateo County north, which is also managed by the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary — another 1,400 square miles. Then you include the Golden Gate Recreational Area up to the Golden Gate Entrance or bridge, as most people know it today, there are over 300 ship and aircraft losses.

HOST: I'm guessing that two years isn't enough time to locate and document all of the wrecks in this region.

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: In two years you will not find even a quarter of the shipwrecks that are out there, because finding a shipwreck is of course first and foremost confirming what the shipwreck is. The next phase is mapping, it's documentation, sonar imagery, it's doing the map, and it's doing additional research on the historical significance of that wreck. All of this plays into building the nomination in the National Register of Historic Places, so it's quite a lengthy process. And so we may go back with different instrumentation to look at wreck sites to get different types of documentation. We found the shipwreck Selja — turn of the century, went down off Point Reyes — very difficult to record with an ROV because of the strong currents and the lower visibility. It would be an ideal shipwreck to take a multibeam or 3D sonar image and basically paint the wreck in color. We'd have a better understanding of how the ship lies. It's pretty catastrophic site, looking at it, the way it's twisted on the bottom. So it's a project that would be ongoing. So we have to determine, in the second year, do we return to the sites that we have discovered and continue additional survey work, or do we move on and try to discover new sites. So that's all part of the research plan, pre-mission, to prioritize it. It has a lot to do with sea state and weather conditions.

HOST: You mentioned the National Register of Historic Places. Is the goal to get all the shipwrecks you find included in this national register? Why is this important?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: Listing a shipwreck on the National Register doesn't necessarily give it a higher level of protection, but it gives it the level of recognition of historical significance with the American public and it also allows for funding opportunities and grants. The National Historic Preservation Act directs government agencies like NOAA that manage federal lands, including submerged lands, to inventory prehistoric and historic heritage resources. And upon discovery, we map, we photograph, the documentation, we develop outreach and educational initiatives based on those resources … which can include museum exhibits at our learning centers, but most importantly, if the resources meet the criteria for the National Register of Historic Places, then we process the nomination for listing, which we have done a couple of times out here in the Pacific. So that's the really important mandate requirement to go out and record these sites. The educational value and touching people with these stories is a bonus.

HOST: So what's coming up next? Are you planning to continue work in the Golden Gate area?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: Our goal is actually to return to the work we did in November with the discovery of the Rio de Janeiro as well as sonar imaging of the City of Chester — that's all part of this, because even though we're working outside the boundary of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary or the northern boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it's still a part of the maritime cultural heritage landscape. You know, they cross both lines. They all interconnect, these stories. A matter of fact, just within the Golden Gate entrance there, we have three vessels built by John Roach and Son in Chester, Pennsylvania: we have the City of Chester, we have the City of Rio de Janeiro, and we have the City of New York. All lost right there at the mouth of the Golden Gate.

HOST: That's unbelievable that all three vessels ended up as shipwrecks so close to one another right at the Golden Gate entrance. Why are there so many wrecks in the San Francisco Bay area?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: When we were doing survey work there in September and November, it was magnificent. We had calm days, we had low winds, the sea state was just great to work with, but we've also been on those waters where suddenly the waters are no longer calm and they become very treacherous to shipping. There's lots of fog, especially off San Francisco. As we get closer to the Golden Gate entrance, there's eddies, there's rip tides, strong currents, and the run-off during the rain means there's a lot more water that runs through that tight entrance that covers rocks that are normally exposed, so through the ages, San Francisco has been a challenging place to navigate for mariners. Early in 1853, for instance, the gold rush steamer Tennessee missed the entrance to San Francisco and wrecked in a cove just north of Point Bonita, which today is known as Tennessee Cove, Tennessee Point, and Tennessee Valley. There was another gold rush loss of the SS Lewis, which is up at Duxbury Reef and among the passengers was Capt. William T. Sherman, Third U.S. Infantry. Early in his career, on leave from the U.S. Army, returing to San Francisco aboard the ship when she wrecked and — this was April of 1853 — so the same year as the loss of the Tennessee. So the passengers and crew all got ashore safely and Sherman discovered a schooner loaded with lumber, persuaded the captain to take him to San Francisco. And as they approached Fort Point, the same location that the City of Chester wrecked as well as the striking by the City of Rio De Janeiro, the wind kicked up and they met a really strong ebb tide driving them to sea. It drove the nose of the schooner under the water and she dove in like a duck, and he went over the side and began to drift out with the tide. And I guess the vessel refused to sink because of the lumber cargo, so Sherman — who'd been thrown overboard — clamored back on the side. Soon after, the boat deposited him at Fort Point. A very wet Captain walked to the Presidio thinking, "Two shipwrecks in one day was not a beginning of a future career." He went into the banking business.

HOST: And for those listening in, just to be clear — that's William T. Sherman, the future Civil War general…and now you know he was also a banker. Great story. And I'd love to hear more, but that's all the time we have for this episode. Robert Schwemmer, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Do you have any parting words for our listeners?

ROBERT SCHWEMMER: From submerged Native American sites still waiting to be discovered, shipwrecks of exploration dating back to 1595 with the loss of Spain's Manila Galleon St. Augustin in Drake's Bay, California, which is part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. To the 19th century shipwrecks we're just beginning to discover. Over a hundred years old and after the loss, those are coming to light. The Pacific Coast is an amazing underwater maritime museum. And especially right off of San Francisco. It's the first city of steam, sail, exploration, military … it's all there."

HOST: That was Robert Schwemmer, West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for NOAA's Office National Marine Sanctuaries. He joined us by phone from his office in Santa Barbara. You can see photos, 3D sonar imagery, and videos from NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program. Check our show notes for the links. And that's it for this episode. Write to if you want to leave us a comment.  Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service will be back in a month.