Doomed vessel continues to claim bird lives 63 years after sinking

It will be 63 years ago this summer that two freighters — one headed to Pusan, Korea, to help the war effort and the other inbound from Honolulu — collided about 17 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, sending one ship to the ocean floor about 180 feet below.

The Jacob Luckenbach had 48 crew members on board and was carrying 457,000 gallons of fuel oil for its trans-Pacific journey when it started taking on water. Reports indicate the captain of the Hawaiian Pilot couldn’t make out the Luckenbach in the thick, pre-dawn fog.

Though the ship sank in 30 minutes, the fuel it was carrying has continued to flow into the San Francisco Bay. An operation in 2002 collected 100,000 gallons of fuel from the ship but left some inside, virtually sealed. But when ocean swells strengthen every winter and the water gets choppy, some of that oil makes its way to the surface.

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According to the latest report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the Luckenbach’s fuel coated nine birds in oil in December, killing four of them.

International Bird Rescue treated the birds and released three of them. Two are still being treated.

“The oceans are becoming less and less hospitable for birds and other marine wildlife, even without these toxins,” the organization’s executive director, JD Bergeron, said in a statement. “We step up to help because we believe every bird matters, and we’re grateful for the incredible community support we get.”

The birds — six common murrers, a red-necked grebe, a pacific loon and a western grebe — were found on Monterey and Santa Cruz county beaches between Dec. 14 and 19, following a big swell days earlier.

Rescuers removed the oil and sent it to a lab to be tested — where it was traced back to the Luckenbach, which was the source of plenty of bird death mysteries over the years, media reports show.

A report released in 2006 calculated that between 1990 and 2003, more than 51,000 birds and eight sea otters had died because of the Luckenbach oil.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.


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