A couple of years back, I had pitched a television show on potential environmental disasters - man-made situations waiting to turn into ecological nightmares unless we act now. One of the segments of the show was to examine the condition and future fate of the Montebello, a 457-foot oil tanker resting on the ocean floor off the central California coast.
In the pre-dawn hours, only fifteen days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine sent the Montebello to the bottom as it left Port San Luis. She came to rest in 900 feet of water, taking along her cargo of over 3 million gallons of crude oil.
Mystery has surrounded the Montebello; surviving crewmembers claimed she was struck amidships but no oil leaked from its wound and its current position on the sandy bottom perhaps tells a different story. In 1996, NOAA sent a submersible down to explore the wreck and found it in surprisingly good shape. It appeared that the freighter had been struck near the bow, which was separated from the rest of the ship when it struck the bottom. Fortunately, the holds or tanks that would contain the oil appeared to be intact.
In 2003, the Montebello was again visited, this time by scientists from the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands Marine Sanctuaries. And this time, the old girl was beginning to show her age. The threat of the ship giving up its cargo in the form of a massive oil leak became a very real issue. However, no one was quite sure of its deadly cargo - what type of oil was it that none had been detected in over 70 years?
The following year, the Oakland Trubune reported, "Scientists were vexed by the mystery: They didn't know the density of the oil that the Montebello had taken on, an important factor for predicting the likelihood of a leak. After reading a newspaper story, Richard Quincy [surviving crewmember from the Montebello] called marine sanctuary officials with the answer: At Port San Luis, the Vancouver-bound ship had taken on a load of Santa Maria crude - oil so thick it had to be heated just to flow."
One of the 1996 researchers, Robert Schwemmer was quoted as saying, "The historic record has not revealed any oil discharge or oiled beaches in the area. So, that leads us to believe it potentially has the oil. The water temperature's 41 degrees. So, the consistency of this oil is a tar ball or Jell-o."
The Montebello was an ecological time bomb. And the clock was ticking. . .
Now return to the present and the results of several weeks of underwater testing on the Montebello have just been announced. Using advanced technology to determine the density of the liquid inside the still-intact ship, along with drilling into the fuel tanks to sample what was inside, scientists and researchers from NOAA, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Coast Guard have come up with a startling discovery.
"At the end of the day, the Montebello is filled with seawater," said Fish and Game spokesperson Andrew Hughan.
Seawater! So, just where did over 3 million gallons of crude oil go? In a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, writer Tony Barboza reported, "The answer may never be known, but scientists have developed one scenario: Some of the oil leaked out and evaporated within the first few days after the boat went down. The bulk of it probably gurgled to the surface as the ship sank, drifting south and away from the shoreline, scientists suggested. Whatever was left inside might have washed ashore but, scattered so widely, it probably went unnoticed."
But can that be possible? Can oil, once reported to be the consistency of Jell-o, simply gurgle to the surface and evaporate? Granted, the oil becomes much for fluid when exposed to warmer temperatures - but 3 million gallons going unnoticed? Well, it's truly a mystery with what would appear to be a happy ending: no horrendous oil spill to blacken the beaches and destroy surrounding marine life in central California.
Jordan Stout, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientific Support Coordinator, summed it up, "We will probably never know what happened to the oil."
Read about the Montebello from the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Read recent article on the Montebello's oil in the Los Angeles Times.