The violence of war has taken an immeasurable toll on human civilization and has left deep scars on both the people that inhabit this planet and the Earth itself. Conflicts have results in death, destruction and disruption the world over. Many of these wounds remain, in the form of painful memories, eliminated lives and damage to the environment.
Article and photos by Eco-Photo Explorers Michael Salvarezza and Christopher P. Weaver
In World War II, catastrophic battles took place in Europe, Asia, the Pacific Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, Africa and beyond. When the hostilities ceased, over 60 million people had died and the world needed to slowly rebuild. But lying beneath the waves of the world’s oceans were untold numbers of ships, sunk in battles carrying cargo and people to their watery graves. Many of these remain, bearing silent witness to the horrors of war and the terrible acts of violence that we inflict on one and other.
On January 15, 1942, the supply ship Coimbra set off from Bayonne, New Jersey and was heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia when it was torpedoed by the German U-Boat U-123. The cargo of 2.7 million gallons of oil ignited in a spectacular explosion, ripping the ship into three pieces.
Only nine men out of forty-five on board survived the explosion and sinking.
Although an assortment of lifeboats and rafts were launched, the men not immediately killed in the blast succumbed to the cold of the icy Atlantic one by one until they were sighted by a US Army patrol plane, which radioed a nearby destroyer that eventually came and rescued the survivors.
This was the second sinking by a U-Boat off the East Coast and it marked the beginning of the American “Battle of the Atlantic”. For the German commanders of these submarines, this was considered “the happy time”, when ships off the eastern seaboard of the United States were easy targets.
Because of the United States’ reluctance to join the fighting in Europe, complacency had taken over. Cities near the water failed to adopt evening “blackout” measures, and the light from these cities effectively shined a spotlight on the vessels plying these waters. The U-Boats had an easy time of it.
The Coimbra settled to the bottom, bringing with her hundreds of thousands of gallons of lubricating oil trapped in its cargo holds. The wreck lies in three sections 64 miles southeast of Jones Inlet and 30 miles south of the Shinnecock Inlet in 190 feet of water. This wreck is for advanced divers only due to its distance and depth but visibility can exceed 80 feet in this section of the ocean. Divers who venture to the wreck can spot Ocean Pout, Red Hake and other deeper water species lurking in the rusting remains of the sunken tanker.
She lies in an area of ocean that often boils with life. Besides divers, the wreck site is a favorite for local fishermen who come here in search of Tuna and other pelagic species. Whales and Dolphin are sometimes seen feasting on bait balls swirling in the water column above the wreck.
But despite this healthy marine environment, a ticking time bomb of an environmental calamity was tucked away in the cargo holds of the wreck. When she sank, the Coimbra took the remaining oil that did not burn in the explosion to the bottom and this oil has been slowly dribbling out of the wreck ever since the sinking. Indeed, divers and fishermen visiting the wreck over the years have often reported a sheen of oil in the area. As the ship deteriorates, many began to fear that the tanker would “give way” and release the oil in an environmental disaster.
After several years of monitoring the site, and after a recreational diver was reported to have emerged from the wreck covered in oil, the Coast Guard decided something needed to be done.
The Coimbra is one of 87 wrecks that have been identified as a high oil pollution risk according to a 2010 NOAA study. The Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project is a joint effort between NOAA and the Coast Guard and over 20,000 known shipwrecks were assessed before the 87 high priority wrecks were identified.
In early 2019, a contract was secured with Resolve Marine Group to first assess and then, if possible, recover the oil.
The initial assessment of the wreck showed that oil was found in eight of the ship’s tanks. Commercial divers then found that the oil was slowly leaking from a pinhole opening in one of the tanks and evaporating before reaching the shore. A decision was made to attempt the recovery of the oil.
In May of 2019, a joint operation of the Coast Guard and DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) began the removal of the oil supported by more than 100 governmental, industry and conservation specialists. A 6000-pound ROV was an essential tool in the recovery, as were divers and other resources.
By July, the operation concluded, and the Coast Guard reported that 450,000 gallons of oil were successfully removed from the wreck. Remaining on the Coimbra is a small amount of leftover oil, which poses minimal risk to the environment according to NOAA officials.
World War II era wrecks, and wrecks from more modern-day conflicts, litter the bottom of the world’s oceans. Some have long ago discharged their environmentally dangerous cargos, but many continue to hold on to these fluids, oils and other harmful substances deep in their cargo holds. Efforts like RULET are vitally important to help prevent additional damage from these long-ago military catastrophes.
The Coimbra rests uneasily on the bottom of the Atlantic, slowly deteriorating and occasionally visited by technical divers. It is home to a thriving marine environment as an artificial reef. Happily, the oil it once contained has now been removed and the Coimbra no longer poses an environmental threat to the area. At least this one lingering wound from the war that convulsed the world over 75 years ago has finally been healed.