What on Earth?! Shipwreck

While rounding up stragglers, the senior leader’s booming voice echoed and resonated against the sandstone bluffs that emerged like islands in the ether.  “We’ve stayed packed together this time, and we’ll continue the entire journey this way, no branching off on your own like before.  Times have changed.”

“Shouldn’t we be forging ahead, why are we pausing here?” an impatient adolescent pointedly addressed his patriarch, “Let’s press on!”

The leader paused with his thoughts that were steeped in the wisdom of many trips back and forth along this same path.  Although they came from a faraway homeland that was only seasonal, and were heading to a destination that was also seasonal, he was comforted by feeling at home with every familiar pause in their sojourn.  How could he convey to the young that this haven was the same as the beginning and the end of their journey, and that a sense of home needed to stay with them wherever they found themselves.    What he would not tell them was that a few maverick members actually stayed here permanently.

“And why can’t we just plow through all these dangling lines,” the challenging youth continued.

“Always with the why questions, always, always,”   a disgruntled mother responded.  “see that wreck in that pocket over there, something like that could happen to you if you don’t watch where you are going and become entangled in those lines.”

Another youngster was herded back into the group after wandering into the lines.  “But it’s fun to weave in between the lines,” he exclaimed, finishing a slalom on the heels of a sharp reprimand.

“Always challenging, always, always,” an adult enforcer proclaimed.

Up against the wall of landfall with thousands of miles of his elements behind him, the senior leader reiterated, “let’s stick around, there is some curious human activity going on from that episode last night, and besides, the food is plentiful here.”

At the mention of human activity, another adult member of the group excitedly chimed in “Last night in the dark I knew that vessel was approaching too close to the reef, and those throbbing engines didn’t sound right, and then they suddenly became silent.”

*                   *                   *                *

New Year’s Day ended and the second day of the new year was a perfect time to head out to the cape’s rugged reef and its long sandy beaches.  The weather had turned clear and brisk as it often does in early January, with freezing nights and balmy afternoons absent of the chilly winds so prevalent on this coastline.  With the favorable weather conditions, visibility from the bluffs across the great expanses of ocean would be superb, making it easy to spot the gray whales at the peak of their migration south.

A long curve of high bluffs with a sandy beach at their base faced the jagged and broken rock walls of the outer reef, and beyond the reef is where the cotton candy-like puffs from spouting whales would appear.  Watching them pass by from the cape’s headland was our objective for the afternoon.

But as we approached the main overlook, we discovered to our dismay that a fishing vessel was marooned among the sea stacks, rocking and listing against the rocks with each powerful surge of the surf.   The 39 foot “Robert Henry” was tilting its spar pole at a crazy angle, and with its booms dangling and its bow partially submerged, it created an epic scene against the clear blue sky and frothing ocean.  Only a hundred yards off shore, this was a “picture post card” perfect shipwreck scene, if such a tragic event could be so described.

An excited group of onlookers had gathered on the bluff directly above the wreck, and rumors and facts and conjectures were flying, but the main hypothesis was that it was a crabbing vessel, and its name and home port of Newport, Oregon, were clearly verified in big letters across the stern.  Statements by the bystanders covered everything from “thousands of gallons of fuel and a few hundred pounds of crab” to “700 of pounds of crab and a thousand gallons of diesel”, all references to the cargo and potential spill. However, the local newspaper later reported that 4000 pounds of crab and 300 gallons of fuel were aboard the stricken vessel.

There were some accurate reports among the rapid fire rumors, however, and it was welcome news that the coast guard had plucked the crew from the distressed ship in the middle of the previous night with a minimum of adversity and injuries.  The initial grounding occurred 400 yards out where bouys could still be seen with their lines tied to the crab traps set at the bottom of the ocean.

A television newscaster had set up a tripod video cam, and with her back to the ocean, busily described the ordeal into the lens.   Meanwhile, far off to the north near a jetty entrance, I noticed the coast guard cutter heading out to sea with a smaller speedboat.  “Here comes the cavalry,” I exclaimed, but the cutter kept its course out to sea, while the red speedboat turned and sped straight for us.  Anchoring close by, a diver jumped off and swam to the wreck with a line.  He appeared to engage in a survey of the damage, and while everyone was entertained by the daring action in the swells, the news lady continued talking into her lens, missing the whole diving episode.

When I made the comment that perhaps a crew would try and tow the vessel in, a buff young man that seemed experienced with work on the sea corrected me with “that boat won’t be floating anywhere, the only thing holding it up are the rocks it’s rammed against.  If they tow it off the rocky ledge, it would sink immediately.”  Even though it was pinned to the rocks, wave action kept the crab boat moving in a slow spiral, and its flooded bow seemed to dip even deeper.

While seagulls flocked around the disabled craft, sea lions circled like hungry sharks, and a lone pelican held his ground, alternating between perching on the wheelhouse and bobbing in the water with the gulls. The hull of this boat, with at least one puncture showing, was all that stood between them and thousands of pounds of fresh crab, and nobody was leaving soon.

Through all this time and commotion, the whale migration was not forgotten, and many of us were keeping an eye out for the passing creatures beyond the reef. Curiously enough, it was noted by many that a tight group of six or more whales were loitering close in to the reef while their brethren cruised steadily south much further out at sea.

Albino Gray Whale in Driftwood Wave,  by Terry Woodall;  carved from Holly, inspired by sighting and video recording  of pure white gray whale off nearby headland, May 13, 1994

Albino Gray Whale in Driftwood Wave, by Terry Woodall; carved from Holly, inspired by sighting and video recording of pure white gray whale off nearby headland, May 13, 1994

This pod was putting on a terrific display, with backs, tails, and noses emerging, blowing their great geysers of vapor simultaneously, and seemingly content to hang around just beyond the shipwreck. It was unlikely they were there to feed, since they stayed near the surface without any long dives associated with feeding.  Some observers claimed to see babies in the tight formation, although youngsters would be more likely, since birthing in warm Mexican lagoons normally begins at the end of their trek, which is one of the longest migrations of the world’s mammals.

Chaos is contagious, it would sometimes seem, and it was certainly true around this poignant beginning of the new year.   After a full bill of an excited crowd, a listing crab boat thrashed against the rocks, and  the stationary gray whales fussing and blowing, I retreated down the winter road from the cape. There was occasional frost throughout the day, and at a sharp curve that funneled out to beach level at a small bay called Sunset, the sanded pavement belied its slick condition.

Just when I thought the excitement of the day was waning, there at the far end of the curve and off in the ditch was the official television news vehicle, lightly dinged and facing the wrong direction.  A park service official with his pickup truck parked nearby was in an animated discussion with the news lady, presumably over her misfortune, and both were standing on the shoulder of the road in front of the news van.

Regardless of the mishap, she evidently made her deadline, as her narration and shipwreck footage aired on the evening news later that same day.

*                              *                              *                      *

As a footnote to this story, towards the end of the same month, national news feeds reported on unusual  pod formations in this year’s gray whale migration. They normally migrate in pairs or solo, but off the coast of San Diego, California, whale watching boats filmed approximately twenty grays in tight formation.  A Scripp’s Institution of Oceanography biologist emphasized how unusual this was, and indicated that difficulty with food supply could be a factor in their unprecedented behavior.

What on Earth?!  Gray whales and a shipwreck, January 2, 2013, Cape Arago, Oregon

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