Beneath the lapping waters of the Pacific Ocean – in the shadow of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – lies a dark seabed littered with ghostly secrets. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is on a mission to uncover them all. With the help of underwater robots, they delve into the mysteries of the deep. And the experts are about to make some astonishing discoveries.
The rust-colored span of the Golden Gate Bridge stretches across the mouth of San Francisco Bay, and it is probably one of America’s most iconic landmarks. But did you know that the ocean beneath it also hides a number of historic treasures? Below the surface, the NOAA’s remotely operated vehicles have been uncovering a fascinating story.
More photographs are taken of San Francisco’s most famous structure than of any other bridge worldwide, according to the Frommer’s travel guide. And it’s easy to see why. At almost two miles long, it straddles the gap between the city and the wide Pacific Ocean. Its orange hue also provides a stark contrast to the blue Californian sky.
The Golden Gate Bridge is so beloved that the American Society of Civil Engineers consider it to be one of the Wonders of the Modern World. Yep, it sits alongside feats of engineering such as the Empire State Building and the Panama Canal. But even though some ten million people visit the landmark every year, according to Bold Italic, few are aware of the secrets that lurk in the waters below. Now, the NOAA team is hoping to change that.
Though in their struggle to uncover the world beneath the waves, the experts are battling a landscape that has a reputation for keeping its treasures under wraps. San Francisco Bay is connected to the Pacific Ocean by a narrow strait which is just a mile wide in places, and it is one of the world’s greatest natural harbors. Interestingly, Spanish conquistadors sailed right past the hidden cove when they first arrived on the Californian coast.
Often blanketed in a layer of fog, San Francisco Bay remained hidden from the Spanish until the 18th century. And even when they did make it through the strait – known as the Golden Gate – they were forced to navigate perilous waters. Thick clouds frequently obscured the view, while storms, strong winds and swells battered ships against the rocks.
At the Golden Gate itself, a strong current often caught approaching vessels – scuppering them before they could reach the safety of the bay. These early arrivals lacked charts and other navigational equipment, so they were at the mercy of the wild Pacific Ocean. But despite such challenges, a settlement later sprang up around the natural harbor.
Initially part of Mexico, the burgeoning city of San Francisco was ceded to the U.S. in 1848. And two years later, California became the 31st state to join the Union. By this time, the Gold Rush was in full swing, and would-be prospectors from all across America were flocking to seek their fortunes on the Western Frontier.
With so many people arriving by ship, San Francisco Bay quickly became one of the most important seaports in the world. And even after the Gold Rush had died down, this city by the Golden Gate remained a significant maritime resource. But as the metropolis grew, the narrow strait became an obstacle to be conquered.
Before the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, you see, the main route into San Francisco was by boat. While the city’s coastal location had initially helped it to grow, this isolation ultimately prevented it from developing in line with other American cities. So, the authorities began to consider an alternative to the ferry services that shipped passengers across the bay.
Many initially believed that it would be impossible to build a bridge across the mouth of San Francisco Bay. After all, the waters beneath the Golden Gate plunge to more than 330 feet deep – creating a turbulent channel of strong currents and tides. And if that wasn’t enough, any construction project would also be hampered by the heavy fog and wild winds that often batter this part of the Californian coast.
Even if a bridge could be built in such a location, many reasoned, it would have to be a structure unlike any ever seen before. Located in the mouth of the harbor, it would need to stand tall enough to allow even the biggest of vessels to sail underneath. Nevertheless, the idea of this impossible construction began to gain traction in the aftermath of the city’s World’s Fair in 1915.
In 1921 the engineer Joseph B. Strauss proposed a combined suspension and cantilever bridge to connect the city of San Francisco to the region now known as Marin County. And eventually, his design was revised into the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that we know and love today. At the time, it was the highest and longest structure of its kind anywhere in the world.
The huge structure then opened in May 1937 to much fanfare and acclaim. More than 80 years later it remains one of San Francisco’s top tourist attractions – and probably its most iconic sight. Today, it carries well over 100,000 vehicles every day, according to the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.
So many people have passed over the Golden Gate Bridge that it seems unlikely there could be anything about it still secret or undiscovered. Yet a number of hidden relics lurk in the churning waters beneath – some dating back to the 1800s. So what exactly are these sunken mysteries at the bottom of San Francisco Bay?
Over at the NOAA, researchers and marine archeologists have made it their mission to uncover the secrets in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge. And as an organization, they’re well placed to do so. In fact, they operate the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary – a preservation area that covers some 330,000 square miles of ocean off the coast of California.
As a governmental organization, the NOAA is responsible for monitoring the oceans and waterways of our planet. And part of this remit involves scanning the seabed to search for anything out of the ordinary. In the deep ocean, this process sometimes reveals new species or complex organisms mostly unknown to science.
Surely there couldn’t be anything unexpected hiding in the well-traveled waters of the Golden Gate? Well, as it turns out, there could. Over the years, the treacherous currents that sweep through the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and along the San Francisco coast have sent a number of ships to a watery grave. And even now, their long-forgotten wrecks are still being discovered by the NOAA.
In September 2014 a team of researchers began conducting a survey in the stretch of ocean just west of the Golden Gate Bridge. Having pored over sonar scans of the area, they had identified eight locations that seemed worthy of further investigation. Amazingly, four of these turned out to be just what they were looking for – shipwrecks lost for many years beneath the waves.
The team used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to study each of the sites in turn. And what they found has added a number of fascinating new chapters to the story of the Golden Gate. But what exactly happened to these lost ships? And how have they remained hidden in plain sight for such a long time?
According to reports, the oldest of the shipwrecks discovered during the NOAA’s September 2014 mission is believed to be the Noonday. Amazingly, this clipper went down all the way back in 1863. Leftover from the time of the Gold Rush, the vessel was still hauling men and cargo to the Californian coast long after the prospectors had abandoned ship.
This time around, the Noonday was nearing the end of the long journey from Boston to San Francisco. It had been at sea for more than four months, according to Live Science. But just as it came within view of the city, the ship hit a rock and began taking on water. And even though everyone on board escaped with their lives, the vessel and its valuable cargo sank in water some 240 feet deep.
Despite the deep waters, there were some who tried to salvage the ship’s cargo – although they came up empty-handed. Interestingly, the previously uncharted outcrop which caused the sinking was dubbed Noonday Rock. But though the vessel’s name would be remembered, the exact location of the wreck was lost over time.
Until, that is, the NOAA survey of September 2014. Looking at sonar scans of the seabed, a volunteer identified an object that appeared to be the same size as the Noonday. And it was in a location close to the rock that bears its name. Using an ROV to explore the site, researchers spotted the outline of a clipper ship.
The team did not uncover any actual remains, though they are confident that they have found the doomed clipper’s final resting place. The NOAA’s James Delgado told AP at the time, “Noonday is there. The signal is very clear. But there’s just nothing sticking above the seabed.”
During the same survey, the NOAA team also located the wreck of the S.S. Selja – a steamer that sank in 1910. The vessel had ploughed the trade routes between Asia and the Pacific Northwest – carrying American goods to sell in China and Japan. And the vessel was loaded with its typical cargo of timber and flour when it left on its final journey from Portland, Oregon.
This time, however, the Selja would not get far. Around 700 miles south of Portland, it rounded Point Reyes west of San Francisco and crashed into another steamer – the S.S. Beaver. In the ensuing chaos, the vessel sank in some 180 feet of water and two crew members died as a result.
Afterwards, the Selja’s master Olaf Lie attempted to sue the owners of the Beaver – claiming that the other vessel had been responsible for the accident. Ironically, the court found that Lie had in fact been at fault and that he’d been traveling far too fast for the foggy conditions. But even though the incident caused quite a stir, the wreck of the steamer was forgotten until the NOAA rediscovered it west of the Golden Gate Bridge.
The NOAA also discovered two additional wreck sites on that same mission. Though further research was needed to determine the exact identity of these vessels. According to reports, one was in a poor state of preservation – its bulk obscured by numerous fishing nets. The other, meanwhile, appeared to be that of an unknown tugboat, and it was still remarkably intact.
But why are there so many shipwrecks scattered beneath the Golden Gate Bridge? Well, part of it has to do with the sheer amount of maritime traffic that once passed through the strait. Delgado told Live Science in 2014, “We’re looking at an area that was a funnel to the busiest and most important American port on the Pacific Coast.”
There are around 300 wrecks scattered across the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, Live Science notes. The oldest, according to records, is the San Agustin – a Spanish galleon that crashed into the shore and sank in the 16th century. And the most recent is that of the Puerto Rican – a tanker that dramatically exploded off the coast of San Francisco in the 1980s.
So as we’ve seen, the waters surrounding the Golden Gate are filled to the brim with shipwrecks. Yet many of them still haven’t been explored by scientists. Luckily, the NOAA has been taking steps to uncover the secrets of these underwater relics in recent years. A few months before the September 2014 survey, for example, researchers revealed another startling discovery. Almost directly beneath San Francisco’s famous bridge they had located the wreck of the S.S. City of Chester – lost for well over a century.
Bound for Eureka, California, the City of Chester steamship had barely left the port in San Francisco before disaster struck. At the entrance to the harbor, it collided with the R.M.S. Oceanic, which tore a hole in its port side. In just six minutes the vessel had sunk – claiming the lives of 16 people.
Though it sank within spitting distance of the Golden Gate, the City of Chester’s wreck languished in obscurity for 120 years. Then, in April 2014 the NOAA announced that it had successfully located – and explored – the remains of the tragic vessel. And if the sonar images are to be believed, it has remained surprisingly intact over the years.
In December 2014 the NOAA then released the first photographs of one of the most famous wrecks that litters this stretch of the Californian coast. In February 1901 the steamer S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro had foundered close to the site of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to reports, it was a foggy morning, and the captain had struggled to navigate through the narrow straight.
On board the doomed vessel were some 210 people – many of them immigrants bound for a fresh start in the United States. But more than half of those on board sadly perished after the City of Rio de Janeiro hit rocks and sank into the cold Pacific Ocean. For many, their dreams of a new life ended there, on the ship that was dubbed the “Titanic of the Golden Gate.”
Today, the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro sits underneath almost 290 feet of water – near to where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands. But thanks to the work of the NOAA, its eerie resting place has been revealed. Using sonar and 3D modeling techniques, researchers were able to build up a fascinating image of how the steamer looks now.
Then, in October 2015 the NOAA uncovered yet another surprising secret. That month, a team sent ROVs down to explore the unidentified tugboat wreck first discovered a year earlier. And after examining its features, they were able to determine that it was actually the remains of the USS Conestoga, which had disappeared in 1921.
After a career transporting weapons and supplies during World War I, the Conestoga was en route to Samoa to serve as a station ship. But after departing Mare Island some 20 miles north of San Francisco, the ship and her 56 crew members simply vanished. And for almost 100 years, the location of the lost vessel remained an intriguing mystery.
That conundrum was finally solved thanks to the work of the NOAA. But that doesn’t mean that the waters beneath the Golden Gate Bridge have given up all their secrets. Far from it, in fact, if the experts are to be believed. So what else might ROVs discover lurking undetected off the coast of San Francisco? Only time will tell.