News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Hundreds of shipwrecks line California's coastal seafloor

McCullock Underwater Expedition
McCullock Underwater Expedition
Robert Schwemmer, NOAA
McCullock Underwater Expedition
NOAA Expedition of the McCullock.
Robert Schwemmer, NOAA

Listen to story

Download this story 8.0MB

Think of Santa Barbara, and visions of beaches and fine dining come to mind but there's a surprising attraction in the area — a shipwreck graveyard.

The waters of the Channel Islands are over 100 sunken ships, including a recent discovery dating back to the Spanish American War. The Cutter ship McCulloch sank exactly a century ago.

So, for a deep dive into Santa Barbara shipwreck history, Take Two's A Martinez spoke with Robert Schwemmer. He's the West Coast Regional Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association Office of Marine Sanctuaries. 

Interview Highlights

The McCulloch meets its fate

The McCulloch was involved in a collision off Point Conception on June 13, 1917. They were headed from San Pedro to Mare Island – it's a Navy yard because this was WWI. There was also a passenger ship, the USS Governor. It has 429 passengers and crew on board. They were moving very slowly through fog, sounding their steam whistles to alert other vessels in the area. The officer on watch on the McCulloch heard the steam whistle from the Governor and slowed down. And all of the sudden there was a second blast and they realized that they were about to collide. And the Governor just plowed into the McCulloch, fatally wounding her and she sank 35 minutes later. 

Santa Barbara coast is an underwater graveyard for ships

Between Point Sal and wrapping around Point Conception, including the offshore Channel Islands, down to Point Mugu, we're talking 700 ship and also aircraft losses. Not all total losses. 

Point Conception is the Cape Horn of the Pacific and this was nicknamed by past explorers. It lies at the western entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel. Mariners encounter huge swells, northwest winds... But I would say the single largest contributor to shipwrecks in the area is that persistent fog. 

Ecosystems make sunken ships their home

Shipwrecks provide a great habitat. And this what we're actually found at the site of the McCulloch. Off Point Conception, generally, the seafloor is pretty barren out there. And so with the McCulloch, it serves as this oasis in this underwater desert. The wreck has been down there 100 years so there's various species of marine life including Lingcod. Vermillion and Copper Rockfish – they're everywhere and very large. The marine growth is primarily Metridium Anemones and these are very large, white plumes. They tend to be up on a structure where it's exposed to prevailing currents. 

Quotes edited for clarity

To hear the full interview with Robert Schwemmer, click on the media player above.