We are relatively confident that we have located and identified the wreck of the Mercator in Santa Monica Bay. At this point, we believe that we are the first people to dive and identify the wreck.
After I did an initial dive to investigate and document the wreck and a second dive with Tyler Stalter to gather additional evidence and measure the length of the site, we are 95+% sure that we have identified the wreck as The Mercator. The identification is based upon multiple factors, including:
- Vessel length
- Type of vessel
- Cargo carried when it sank
- Single prop
- Mast and boom
- Location from multiple sources.
We are not disclosing the exact location or depth other than to say it is well beyond recreational limits and my last dive had a run-time in excess of 90 minutes.
A few week ago, Ray Artnz from Sundiver said that he thought he had a relatively deep target that hadn’t been dived yet and offered to take me out to investigate and possibly identify. This was going to be the first dive of the day before I went to photograph the Rigger I.
Captain Kyaa took me out on the Sundiver Express and we quickly made our way up the coast to the target spot.
With little information other than an approximate depth and “it might be a fishing trawler” I geared up into my rEvo rebreather and went down the drop line. The water was crystal blue and had amazing visibility. One thing I noticed right away was the lack of fishing nets for what would normally be a fishing trawler wreck. There was definitely some netting and typical winches, but not as much netting as I would expect. More on that later.
The wreck is relatively untouched and still has all of the artifacts that I would expect to see from a “virgin” wreck including portholes, prop, anchor, etc. I could tell that it was a wooden hull since most of it had collapsed (as opposed to steel) so that was my first clue. I estimated the length at 60-70 feet since the prop was still intact on the shaft and the front of the bow was obvious (pictures below). There were also plastic pieces and plastic tubes with holes in them.
Given the information I had, Tyler and I started researching possible wrecks and the Mercator seemed like a good possibility.
There was still one thing that nagged me. The relatively low amount of fishing nets. Then I saw something in one of the newspaper articles that helped put the puzzle together: “The catch was completely lost but the crew was able to save the Mercator’s net.” Aha.
The Mercator was a 69 foot fishing vessel based out of San Pedro and owned by the Russo brothers.
On November 14th, 1972 there was a torrential downpour in Southern California and heavy seas caused by the storm. The Mercator was headed back home to San Pedro with a large 50-ton load of anchovies. According to an article, the skipper said he believed that the heavy swells caused the load of anchovies to shift and the vessel began to take on water. I’m sure the heavy downpour didn’t help but the 35 mph winds and six foot swells did the Mercator in.
Another fishing boat in the area rescued the skipper and nine crewman. The Coast Guard dispatched a cutter to tow the Mercator back to Marina Del Rey which was the closest port. However, it was unable to save the Mercator and it sank “about seven miles off Rocky Point on the Palos Verdes Peninsula” according to one article and “2 1/2 miles off Santa Monica” in another.
We are working getting additional pictures of the Mercator, but the one we found was based on the boat winning 3rd runner up in the 1967 Fishermen’s Fiesta Boat Parade in San Pedro. I grew up in San Pedro and have written about the Nightingale that we identified earlier this year.
My mom still lives there and is fortunately friends with Mary Jo Walker who is in charge of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society Archives. I reached out to Mary Jo and shortly thereafter had an email from Doug Hansford with additional articles and a photo of the Mercator from the News Pilot when it won the prize:
Below is a photo of the Mercator that Steve Lawson sent me:
Below are a few photos of the wreck with some key points noted that helped identify it
Anchovies & aeration system
Another nagging item was that I didn’t see the typical large fish storage tanks like on the New Saturnia, the Vashon, and the Nightingale (pictures of those tanks are in each of the articles). However, there were sections of white plastic and tubes with holes. Given that the Mercator was carrying a load of anchovies, this all fit together. It was an aeration system to keep the fish alive.
Single Prop and Bow
It is very clear that there is only a single prop on the wreck. Also, the very front of the bow section is still intact — thus adding additional facts and an approximate length of the vessel:
Twin Masts with Crows Nest
As was typical of fishing vessels, there is a boom and mast with a crows nest on one of them. We are hoping to get a better picture of the Mercator that clearly shows this structure.
Nets and tackle
There are still some small sections of the nets and there are enough pieces of tackle to reasonably conclude that it was a fishing vessel.
Other notable areas
These are pictures of other areas of the vessel that people might find interesting including the anchor, winch brake wheel, bollard, capstan, etc.
Natural Light Photos
When I was starting my ascent, I was amazed at how good the visibility was so I decided to start taking some pictures from 30-40 feet above the wreck to get a different perspective.
On the second dive, Tyler Stalter and I teamed up to further investing the wreck debris for possible clues and to measure the length of the ship.
We ran a tape measure from the prop (which isn’t at the very back of the boat) to the bow structure (which also was not all of the way up the bow). The measurement was about 63 feet. If you add in the extra distance at the stern and bow, it matches with the length of the Mercator which was 69 feet.
All of the plates, cups, etc are still at the site. We dug up a bunch of them to see if we could find any positive identification (note: we left them all at the site).
During our investigation, Tyler did find an interesting cover. After the dive, I did some research and it appears to be from a company called Ohler Machinery that was started in 1947 by Ralph G. Ohler and was acquired by W.S. Darley & Co in August 2007. Ohler specialized in pumps for the military as well as pumps and related equipment for the agricultural, industrial, mining and marine industries.
Remember that the Mercator was carrying a load of anchovies and we found evidence of the aeration system to keep them alive. I believe that this would have been the pump for that system. Below is a picture of the plate from the wreck and a modern version of that same pump.
Unfortunately, we did not find anything that 100% identifies the wreck as the Mercator. However, there is an overwhelming abundance of clues that all line up to give us a very high confidence that the wreck is, indeed, the Mercator. These include:
- The location of the site is in the area indicated by two reference points from two different articles and also matches with the Mercator being towed towards the Marina del Rey Harbor.
- The length of the ship as measured matches the length of the Mercator
- The type of ship (fishing trawler) matches with the Mercator and it had a mast and boom
- The nets are missing which is unusual for a fishing wreck but it matches the history that they were saved
- There is a pump and aeration system which would be used to keep fish alive and the Mercator was transporting a catch of anchovies (note that the pump company started in 1947 and we don’t know what year the Mercator was built but it sank in 1972).
Mary Jo Walker and Doug Hansford at the San Pedro Bay Historical Society Archives – for helping with the research
Ray & Kyaa at Sundiver International – For initially finding the site, getting me there and back, and placing the drop line perfectly!
Tyler Stalter – As usual, for his immense help in the research and identification
Donna Eldridge – For the connection to Mary Jo and then the article that helped explain the lack of netting