OSPR crew responds to sunken monument ship in Dana Point

In the twilight hours of Sunday, March 29, the Orange County Sheriff answered a 911 call about a sunken vessel at Dana Point Harbor. They immediately contacted Dana Point deputies who responded to assess the situation. Upon arrival, deputies saw the 98-foot Pilgrim’s wooden hull completely submerged, with its mast leaning to one side in its slip. A large oil sheen surrounded the ship on the water.

Shortly thereafter, local authorities showed up with the county’s OSPR-granted boom trailer to contain and recover the released red dye diesel fuel and oil from the iconic, replica tall ship.

The Office of Spill Prevention and Response awarded a boom trailer to the Orange County Sheriff Department. They received the equipment trailer in November 2019 to help protect their natural and economic resources from oil spills.

“It was never a matter of if we have a petroleum incident at the harbor, but when,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Josh Baugh.

The Orange County community is familiar with oil spills, having experienced one of the largest crude spills in California from the American Trader in 1990. Since that time, the county has looked for funding to purchase containment equipment.

OSPR’s grant program offers up to $35,000 for an oil spill equipment mobile trailer to local government, Native American tribal organizations, and special districts so they have response equipment staged locally for a fast response.

Environmental Scientist David Lyons remembers getting a phone call from the wildlife officer on call about the Pilgrim with instructions for him to deploy as soon as possible. Lyons was the first to arrive on scene from OSPR’s southern field response team, made up of a wildlife officer, an environmental scientist and an oil spill prevention specialist.

“Lots of people from the community were at the scene wondering about the Pilgrim’s fate,” said Lyons. “Everyone who knows the Dana Point area knows about this ship.”

The nearby Ocean Institute owned and operated the Pilgrim, a 1945 replica of a historic ship that sailed in the 19th Century, known for fur trading in North America. One of its sailors, Henry Dana Jr., the areas namesake and writer of the book, Two Years Before the Mast, is about a two-year sailing expedition on the Pilgrim from Boston to California. Hollywood made a movie based on the book with the Pilgrim as its backdrop in 1946.

Unlike the original ship, the replica had a diesel motor, fuel tanks and oil on board. The Ocean Institute used the replica tall ship to offer thousands of school-age children overnight expeditions to teach them about life as a sailor working and living on the high seas.

Lyons said Dana Point Harbor where the ship sank is near environmentally-sensitive, rocky intertidal and tidal areas, a break wall (a wall that breaks the surf to create the harbor) where many birds and wildlife haul out and forage. Wildlife refuges, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area and offshore kelp forests are also among the environmentally-sensitive areas near the harbor.

OSPR Oil Spill Prevention Specialist Jim Kiatos, also responded. He identifies contaminants and quantifies petroleum released into the environment during responses.

“The fast response of the Orange County Sheriff deploying their newly-awarded containment boom played a key role in preventing a major spread of the oil,” said Kiatos. “If we had to wait for an oil spill response organization to arrive, the petroleum might have done more damage.”

Wildlife Officer Anastasia Norris as the state on-scene coordinator oversaw the work of cleanup contractors and the handling of the contaminants and salvage operations. All members of OSPR response team work with federal, local agencies and owners of the petroleum released during oil spill cleanups.

This response occurred during the Covid-19 stay-at-home order as many bystanders and responders kept their distance. Clean up responders maneuvered as best they could to maintain six feet social distance from each other made especially challenging on the narrow dock that surrounded the sunken vessel.

After the cleanup contractor performed oil skimming operations at the slip where the Pilgrim moored, the responders began work to refloat and remove fuel from the tank and seal the sunken vessel. Responders used high capacity pumps to float the vessel and a crane barge to lift her. Divers observed how unstable the old, heavy wooden hull had become. After several lift attempts, Wildlife Officer Norris along with the US Coast Guard representatives, local authorities and the Ocean Institute decided to demolish the Pilgrim out of safety concerns.

The outpouring of emotion from onlookers and others on social media about the demolition of the Pilgrim rang.

“I saw a woman crying in the parking lot near the Pilgrim’s slip once news spread about the demolition,” Kiatos said.

Responders were able to retrieve various key parts of the tall ship to remember her by, including a bell, one of the masts and a cannon.

Members of the southern response team also reminisced:

“When I arrived on scene, it was a very sad site because as a kid, I participated in one of the overnights on the ship doing night watch, rowing in synchronization with my classmates and eating hard tack and stew,” said Norris. “It was actually a really cool experience.”

Lyons recalled touring the Pilgrim while visiting the Ocean Institute during a marine biology class.

“It was a sad thing to happen to the Pilgrim, and it was just one more bad thing to happen in 2020.”

“When I came to California 30 years ago, I noticed the Pilgrim right away and always associated the boat with Dana Point,” Kiatos said.

To learn more about the Ocean Institute’s Pilgrim, go to https://www.ocean-institute.org/general-information/about-pilgrim

To learn more about OSPR’s response grants, go to https://wildlife.ca.gov/OSPR/Local-Government-Outreach

Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #8

UPDATE 4/3/20 – Cleanup is now complete at the Cuyama River in Santa Barbara County, where a tanker truck accident resulted in the release of 4,500 gallons of crude oil on March 21.

Members of the Unified Command leading the response walked through the entire site today and agreed that all cleanup endpoints in the Incident Action Plan have been met.
All of the underflow dams once used to contain the oil have been removed and the shoreline restored.

Equipment decontamination and demobilization will take place next week, along with additional analysis and investigation.

Crews have been following stringent safety protocols in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. No illnesses were reported during the course of the response.

Nine Western pond turtles recovered oiled during the response remain in care at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. They will eventually be released where they were recovered. More wildlife information can be found at Owcn.org.

Media Contact: Eric Laughlin, Incident PIO, 916-214-3279

Cuyama final

Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #7

UPDATE 3/31/20 – Cleanup crews remain committed to removing crude oil from the Cuyama River and shoreline in Santa Barbara County. With much of the oil removed from the water, the focus has been on rocks, cobble and vegetation in the area surrounding the March 21 tanker truck accident.

Rock and cobble are being cleaned by hand, and vegetation is cleaned when possible or otherwise removed.

The impacted area has been split up into five divisions as part of the Incident Action Plan developed by the multi-agency Unified Command. The Plan also includes considerations to protect responders from COVID-19. No illnesses have been reported.

Crews are continually monitoring the area downstream of the containment zone and have not observed oil past that point.

To date, oiled wildlife collected include one belted kingfisher (died at care facility), three mallard ducks (two collected dead and one died at care facility), nine Western pond turtles, two California red-legged frogs (a federally-threatened species), one Western toad, 2 Baja CA tree frogs and two additional tree frogs of species yet to be determined. There was also a non-steelhead fish collected dead. All of the turtles and amphibians survived after being cared for by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). The toad and one of the frogs were released a safe distance upstream from the incident. The last two frogs have been washed and will be released tonight.

Based on the cleanup status, the Wildlife Branch has determined that the incident and the response no longer pose an imminent threat to wildlife and the wildlife field operations are demobilizing. The turtles in care of Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay will continue to be cared for in accordance with the OWCN protocols for release back to where captured when ready.

Photos show the containment area of the river, and the Western toad during care and while being released.

Media Contact: Eric Laughlin, Incident PIO, 916-214-3279 

Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #6

Update 3/26/20: Cleanup crews have removed most pooled surface oil from the containment area two miles downstream of the March 21 tanker truck accident in Santa Maria. The oil/water mix will be quantified in the coming days as it fully separates.
Rocks and soil are also being cleaned at the accident site and along the shoreline.
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) remains on-scene with resources to capture and care for impacted wildlife. Thus far, one dead fish and a dead mallard duck were collected in the field. Two other birds (a second mallard and a belted kingfisher) and two Western pond turtles were recovered alive and taken to Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay for veterinary care. The birds did not survive but the turtles were washed and are recovering. Also recovered alive was a Western toad and a California red-legged frog, a federally-threatened species. Both are receiving care at OWCN’s field stabilization unit. The latest wildlife numbers will be posted at OWCN.org.
As many as 79 people have been involved in this response. A quick containment effort kept the crude oil from reaching Twitchell Dam and Reservoir.

Photographs below show responders at work, drone imagery from 3/25/20, and the Western toad, before and during the cleaning process.

Media Contact: Eric Laughlin, CDFW PIO, 916-214-3279






Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #5

Update 3/24/20: Cleanup continues at the Cuyama River where an overturned tanker truck spilled 4,500 gallons of crude oil on March 21.
Vacuum trucks and skimming devices have worked to remove oil and contaminated water from a containment zone two miles downstream from the accident. The containment continues to hold up well, preventing oil from moving toward Twitchell Dam and Reservoir. Crews have continuously monitored the river through visible observations and drone flights, and have not documented impacts downstream of the containment zone, including at the reservoir.
Oiled Wildlife Care Network crews remain on-scene and have collected two oiled Western pond turtles and three oiled birds: two ducks and a belted kingfisher. One of the ducks and the kingfisher did not survive. The surviving duck and turtles are receiving veterinary care at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. More wildlife updates at OWCN.org.
Cleanup is expected to last at least another week.

Media contact: Eric Laughlin, PIO, 916-214-3279


Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #4

UPDATE 3/23/20: Containment boom has held up well during the current storm, and vacuum trucks continue to recover oil/water mix from the impacted area. It’s now estimated that 4,500 gallons of crude oil reached the river and surrounding area following the tanker truck accident. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network collected a Western pond turtle and a belted kingfisher (bird). Both are receiving veterinary care at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. For more information, visit OWCN.org.

Media contact: Eric Laughlin, PIO, 916-214-3279

Cuyama River Incident – Unified Command Update #3

Santa Maria, Calif. – On March 21, a tanker truck collision on Highway 166 resulted in up to 6,000 gallons of crude oil being released into the Cuyama River, a tributary of the Santa Maria River. A Unified Command has been established to oversee cleanup operations.

A rapid response helped contain the oil upstream from Twitchell Dam and Reservoir, and contractors worked all day Saturday and through the night to construct underflow dams and build a gravel access road so that vacuum trucks can remove the crude oil at the dam sites. The trucks are currently working to remove as much oil as possible before tonight’s forecasted rain.

The Unified Command includes officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and Golden Valley Transfer.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) has been activated to support the response. Reports of oiled wildlife are being investigated.

Media Contact: Eric Laughlin, CDFW PIO, 916-214-3279

Cuyama River Incident update #1


Santa Maria, Calif. – At 7:46 a.m. on Saturday, March 21, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) received a report of an overturned tanker truck that released an unknown amount of crude oil into the Cuyama River, a tributary of the Santa Maria River. The truck was carrying 6,000 gallons of crude oil and the driver was not injured.

An OSPR crew is currently on-scene directing cleanup, containment and recovery operations.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network has also been activated to support the response and potential reports of oiled wildlife.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Highway Patrol, and Santa Barbara County Fire Department are also responding to the incident. A mobile command post has been established at a local U.S. Forest Service fire station. Cleanup companies responding include Patriot Environmental and Pacific Petroleum.

Follow OSPR on Facebook and Twitter @CalSpillWatch for updates.

Media contact:

Eric Laughlin, PIO, 916-214-3279

Banded pelican linked to OSPR restoration project in Mexico

A photograph of a brown pelican with a red leg band signified an interesting connection to OSPR executive Steve Hampton. Hampton, an avid birder and 20-year veteran of oil spill restoration, captured the image in Half Moon Bay and knew the band meant it was born and tagged in Mexico.

After searching the internet and exchanging a few emails regarding this bird that was marked “X567,” Hampton discovered something he did not expect – the pelican he saw came from one of the restoration projects that he helped plan!

The bird originated from a pelican colony on San Martín Island, one of the project sites that helped restore seabirds after the Luckenbach oil spills.

“My research led me to the Mexican conservation organization Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, a sub-contractor for the Luckenbach restoration project,” Hampton said. “They told me they banded this bird as a juvenile on July 7, 2017 on San Martín Island.”

Grupo de Ecología y Conservación in Baja California focuses on restoring seabirds and mainland birds in Mexico. The majority of the pelicans seen in California come from breeding colonies in Baja California.

The SS Jacob Luckenbach collided with its sister ship SS Hawaiian Pilot in 1953 and sank to the ocean floor approximately 17 miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco. The vessel periodically released bunker fuel into the ocean for decades.

State and federal agencies discovered the source of the oil spills in 2002 and OSPR partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to remove oil from S.S. Jacob Luckenbach. The federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund paid for the response in addition to $22.7 million for the estimated 50,000 seabirds that died over the years.

Restoration trustees selected twelve projects to restore impacted seabirds, including the project in Baja California implemented by Grupo de Ecología y Conservación. International coordination and collaboration between U.S. and Mexican conservation organizations makes sense for migratory birds such as the brown pelican that do not know country boundaries.

Hampton worked as an economist for OSPR’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) before becoming a deputy director. NRDA studies environmental injuries from oil spills or other pollution damages and compensates the public for those losses through restoration projects. Since CDFW-OSPR’s inception, over $210 million in restoration projects have been funded through settlements.

“It was luck that a bird I observed had a connection to an oil spill restoration project that I helped make happen years ago,” said Hampton. “The event was a highlight of my summer!”