Wreck of the Zalinski

History of the Zalinski

The USAT Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski was a U.S. Army transport ship that served in both World War I and World War II. She was a steel ship 251 feet in length, 44 feet in width, and 26 feet in depth. She was originally built in 1919 as the Lake Frohna (Hull number 765) at the American Ship Building Company in Lorain, Ohio as a cargo vessel for the U.S. Shipping Board. From 1919 to 1924, she was owned by the U.S. Shipping Board.

The Lake Frohna.

In 1924, she was renamed Ace, and worked for the Ace Steamship Company from 1924 to 1930.

The Ace.
The Ace.
The Ace.
The Ace.

Originally, her final deposition was recorded as torpedoed off the west coast of British Columbia, at a position of 50° 20′ N, 131° 32′ W, on June 26, 1944.

At the time of her sinking, she was transporting the following cargo:

  • Bombs: at least 12 aerial bombs, estimated at 500 lbs each.
  • Ammunition: numerous .30 and .50 caliber rounds.
  • Fuel: bunker oil estimated at about 700 tonnes.
  • Other: truck axles with army type tires.

If it hadn’t been for the bunker oil she was carrying, the Zalinski’s true story may well have remained forgotten. However, in 2003, she started burping up fuel from holes now corroded in her hull. Survivors from the sinking were found, and the real story was finally revealed.

The Zalinski, en route from Seattle to Whittier, Alaska, with a cargo of army supplies crashed into the rocks of Pitt Island in Grenville Channel, 55 miles south of Prince Rupert. Her bottom was torn out and she sank within 20 minutes. The ship’s 48 survivors were rescued by the tug Sally N and the passenger steamer SS Catala, but the cargo of bombs and oil went down with the ship. Staggering in the heavy seas under the load of the 48 survivors plus her own crew, the Sally N made her way to the nearby Canadian Fishing Company cannery at Butedale. The wreck of the Zalinski now lies 1.35 nautical miles southwest of James Point on Lowe Inlet in the Grenville Channel.

On September 20, 2003, the United States Coast Guard Cutter Maple was transiting Grenville Channel, BC and reported that they had seen an oil slick off Lowe Inlet. The incident was investigated by the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Tanu, and samples of the oil were obtained on September 23, 2003. It was reported that these samples were similar to crude oil in odor and consistency. Since there was no apparent source, clean up was not required.

In early October 2003, a commercial airline pilot reported that he had seen further pollution in the area that was “quite thick”. The Canadian Coast Guard responded, and sent personnel to the site, which was in a very remote area and not easily accessible. The presence of the slick was confirmed, and some 3 miles of shoreline had been impacted. Again, no source was found and the Coast Guard suspected that the oil could be surfacing from an old wreck.

Arrangements were made by the Canadian Coast Guard to have the area surveyed by an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle), and on October 30, 2003, an old wreck was located with oil escaping from cracks in the hull. At the same time, clean up crews were working to remedy the shoreline contamination.

By the middle of November 2003, divers had been sent down twice to plug areas of the wreck’s hull that were breached to stop the escape of oil.

Investigations by the Canadian Coast Guard indicated that the wreck was most likely the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski.

As a result of the discovery of munitions at the wreck site, no further response operations could be conducted until an assessment of the munitions was completed and the wreck site was declared safe. The Canadian Coast Guard issued a warning in January 2004, ordering mariners to avoid anchoring or fishing within 200 metres of the wreck site, which was about 27 metres below the water’s surface.

In 2010, the Canadian government developed a response plan to remove all the oil and munitions from the wreck. The U.S. government was contacted, requesting their potential involvement and participation with the response, a cargo manifest list to assist in assessing the risk posed by the munitions, and details on the size of the vessel and its fuel tanks.

Sidescanning the Zalinski

As a test of our new sidescan sonar, Ocean Ecology decided to try to obtain some sidescan images of the Zalinski in August 2009. We spent two days at the site, and while somewhat disappointed (we were expecting to see hull superstructures and masts), we did manage to find the wreck and get a few images. Later, anecdotal reports from people who had talked to the divers and seen some of the ROV footage indicated that the ship was possibly lying bottom-up, and was heavily covered with sediment. This made us feel somewhat more positive about our results, as our images appear to show only the curve of the hull, with no apparent superstructures.

The position of the Zalinski is shown below.

Location of the Zalinski.
Satellite view of sidescan transect.

Using Martin Johansen’s HumViewer software, we can see the 2D/3D perspective of the Zalinski below. Note that she is lying, most likely upside down, on a ledge below a steep drop. There are tufts of bull kelp attached to one end of the wreck, and these extend to the surface. The combination of the steep terrain, which “shaded” the wreck from the sidescan beams, and the kelp, which made navigation with a towfish more difficult, produced poor conditions for achieving good sidescan imagery.

Sidescan image of the Zalinski
Sidescan image of the Zalinski.

Further processing of the 2D and sidescan images brings out the details a bit more.

Processed sidescan image of the Zalinski.
Processed sidescan image of the Zalinski.

The Rest of the Story

So, what happened to the Zalinski?

In 2013, the coast guard assistant commissioner, Roger Girouard, sent a team to Grenville Channel to initiate the clean-up of the Zalinski. A “floating village” was set up in nearby Lowe Inlet, with heavy equipment, rescue boats, motorized launches, and barges packed with oil booms, cranes, nets, and scrubbers. A fishing lodge was towed in to serve as a home base for up to 100 workers as they spent two-week shifts working on the project. On the nearby mountainside, new cellphone and satellite towers were installed to keep the operation tied into a central command centre in downtown Prince Rupert 100 kilometres away.

The coast guard confirmed that the Zalinski was in a precarious position – upside down, and on a steep underwater cliff. Due to the difficult nature of the salvage operation, the coast guard hired Dutch salvage specialists Mammoet to remove oil through an operation known as “hot-tapping”, a process in which the oil in the Zalinski’s tanks were heated up and then pumped through hoses to the surface.

Sidescan image of the Zalinski from DFO.

The salvage operation was not a simple job. The tides in Grenville Channel, which run about 10 km/h, restricted divers to working in short bursts when the tide changed. It was also discovered that the Zalinski was too fragile to pressurize, so all the salvagers could do was try to gently heat the oil and draw it to the surface. The coast guard was advised the Department of National Defense to leave the ordnance in the Zalinski’s cargo alone. So, at the end of the day, about 44,000 litres of thick, black bunker fuel (roughly 43 tonnes) and another 319,000 litres of oily water, were recovered at a cost of $27 million dollars. Since the Zalinski had a maximum capacity of 700 tonnes of fuel (though it probably had less than that when it left Seattle), this is considerably less than expected. It is suspected that much of the bunker C probably spilled when the ship went down; locals say shellfish beds were soiled for several years after the sinking, and there was a jump in cancer deaths in the late 1940s.

Below is a CBC News report on the Zalinski.

CBC News report on the Zalinski

There may well have been political motives behind the clean-up. Grenville Channel isn’t far from site of the controversial Northern Gateway Pipeline terminus at Kitimat. The coast guard had 70 years to figure out how to clean up the Zalinski, yet suddenly it decided to spend $27 million during the winter storm season. The cleanup of the Zalinski was conveniently timed to coincide with the December decision by the National Energy Board on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker proposal. It seems that Ottawa was trying to make a political statement about Canada’s ability to handle a major oil spill. Successfully completeing the Zalinski operation allowed Ottawa to tick off several of the points on their list of conditions for approving tankers on the coast. In particular, the coast guard used a new incident command system for the Zalinski operation, which Ottawa said was required for dealing with any future oil spills.

Below is a Global News report on the Zalinski.

Global News report on the cleanup of the Zalinski