Wreckage of Montebello

In the years since the sinking of the Montebello numerous articles have appeared in local newspapers and on the world wide web reiterating the events of December 23, 1941. The tanker was largely relegated to history except for local fisherman who knew the location of the wreckage because it was a productive fishing spot as well as place to lose valuable fishing gear when it  became entangled in the submerged ship.

However, the tanker still contains 73,571 barrels of crude oil and it is located near the boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marine area off the central coast of California established in 1992. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which manages the sanctuary, agreed to fund an investigation of the Montebello to assess the potential threat to the flora and fauna within the sanctuary.

Science team that discovered The Montebello wreckage

Science team that discovered The Montebello wreckage

To this end, Delta Oceanographics, a private company, was contracted to provide a small, submersible craft called Delta which was carried to the site by the research vessel Cavalier. On November 7, 1996, a science team which included archeologists, historians and biologists located the wreckage in approximately 880 feet of water. Members of the science team included Robert Schwemmer, Jack Hunter, John Foster, Jean de Marignac, Eric Burton, Cambria resident Michele Roest and David Lott. The Delta, manned by Pilot David Slater and Jack Hunter, principal investigator, descended to the bottom and confirmed that this was, in fact, the Montebello. Three additional dives were made by Delta and the tanker was circumnavigated a total of fourteen times recording the condition of the ship through still photography and video.

It was concluded that “…the hull was remarkably intact and resting on an even keel on the ocean floor.” It was not until the end of the fourth dive that the bow section of the tanker was discovered some yards ahead of the rest of the hull because, at that depth, there is virtually no light and Delta’s lights could only illuminate a small area. The bow was seen to be stuck in the sand at a forty degree angle.

This investigation concluded that the entire cargo of oil remained within the tanker’s storage holds and that there was no evidence of leakage. In September, 2003, a second reconnaissance of the Montebello was conducted and no changes in its condition were observed. In fact, the Montebello has become a magnificent deep water artificial reef sustaining a significant biological community.

A third investigation was carried out in 2011 funded by the United States Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game. This was a much more thorough effort which used a number of scientific tests and which concluded that no oil remains in the tanker. A number of explanations of where the oil went have been offered but none have been proven.

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