For close the 30 years the 165-foot Coast Guard Cutter Onondaga has sat sunken and partially visible in the waters of Seattle’s ship canal, its storied history all but forgotten.
But yesterday, divers from the Seattle office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency surveyed the 1934 ship for signs of hazardous materials that could be harmful to the waters of Puget Sound. As an EPA research boat hovered nearby, diver Chad Schulze jumped into the water and descended for a closer look at the vessel, sunken in 25 feet of water on the north side of the ship canal.
Resting near the shore just east of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, the cutter’s rusted bow and part of its mid-structure can be seen jutting out of the water. It is believed to have sunk in the mid-1980s, an inauspicious end for a cutter that provided assistance to vessels in distress, protected peligac fur seals on their annual migration to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea and survived an attack by the Japanese Navy during World War II.
Onondaga was stationed in Astoria, Oreg. from 1934 to 1941 before being sent to Alaskan waters during World War II. She was in Dutch Harbor during the June 1942 Japanese air attacks on the U.S. military base there but suffered no casualties. The ship was decommissioned in July 1947 and sold in December 1954.
Sean Sheldrake, head of the EPA Seattle’s 11-member dive unit, said the vessel’s last registered owner was Foss Maritime, but it’s unclear whether the company owned the boat when it sunk.
“It’s got a lot of history,” he said. “It’s a sad ending for it to be on the [state’s] derelict vessel list.”
Through a partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and the state’s Department of Natural Resources, EPA divers survey vessels sunken in Washington waters to check for navigational hazards and potentially harmful materials such as oil, fuel and batteries. Their findings are shared with the Coast Guard and DNR, which oversees a statewide program to deal with derelict and abandoned boats.
Emerging from the water, Schulze said he surveyed the ship’s decks and hull and shot some video footage. But aside from grass and algae growing on the ship’s deck, along with a large number of big freshwater mussels and a shy crayfish he couldn’t coax out of the boat for a photo, he didn’t see anything unusual.
“That’s a good thing,” Schulze said. “It definitely looks like it’s been there for many years.”
The cost for removing a derelict boat can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2009, DNR issued a contract for $873,000 to remove and dispose of Northern Retriever, a 186-foot steel Navy tug that had been moored on environmentally sensitive tidelands near Aberdeen and become severely rundown.
The information collected by EPA divers, Sheldrake said, helps DNR prioritize as it grapples with how to address the large numbers of potentially hazardous ships rotting away in the state’s waterways.
“It’s very expensive to remove these,” he said. “Even if we don’t find anything, it helps.”