As we roll over the side and the bubbles clear away, we see our wishes have been granted—the visibility is magnificent!
We descend the down-line and at 50 feet, the wreck of the Olympic II comes into view. At that depth we can see nearly half of the venerable sailing ship’s 258-foot length. Her hull and deck beams spread below us like the bones of some ancient creature. Clouds of chromis, calico bass and myriad varieties of perch hover above the iron skeleton of the old windjammer as we glide through them to one of the premier dive experiences in southern California.
Many divers ask how Olympic II came to be here, virtually at the mouth of Los Angeles harbor. That story begins in 1877, with her gala launch from the Belfast shipyard of Harland & Wolff (the same company that built the Titanic) for J.P. Corry & Company. Launched as the Star of France, she was a handsome vessel built for trade with India and Australia. Her modified clipper hull combined the ability to carry the maximum amount of cargo at the best possible speed along with being one of the prettiest vessels afloat. For the next 20 years Star of France made numerous voyages between Britain and ports around the world, but the advent and proliferation of steamships and the short cut of the Suez Canal, spelled the end for wind ships on many commercial routes.
In 1898, the Star was sold to a Seattle-based trading company and registered in the kingdom of Hawaii. Two years later a special act of Congress allowed the Irish-built Star of France to be registered as a U.S. vessel. Under this new ownership, the Star carried out regular trans-Pacific trade with cargos of lumber and coal. In 1902, the Star of France was sold again and came under charter to the Alaska Packers Association, and they purchased three years later. After extensive modifications, which allowed her to accommodate up to 150 fishermen and cannery workers along with a season’s supply of canning materials, she began yearly runs from San Francisco to Bristol Bay, Alaska for salmon. Her multi-national crews were usually task-divided with Americans as crew for the ship, Italians doing the salmon fishing, Chinese laborers in charge of cleaning and preparing the catch, and Mexicans handling the processing of the cleaned salmon. To keep the various crews happy aboard ship, ethnic-based galleys were provided for each nationality. The Star of France sailed as a salmon-packer for the next 23 years until she was laid up in 1925.
In 1933 she was sold to Captain J. M Andersen’s Hermosa Amusement Corporation to replace the well known but aged, wooden fishing barge Olympic. To keep the name recognition of the popular Olympic barge, the Star of France was renamed Olympic II. In April 1934, after having most of her rigging removed and her bulwarks cut down to accommodate fishermen, the Olympic II, ex-Star of France was towed down from San Francisco and moored off Hermosa Beach. For the next six years, the Olympic II was a fixture off the South Bay and became a favorite with local fishermen.
For the 1940 fishing season, Captain Andersen moved the Olympic II to new fishing grounds, the Horseshoe Kelp, just three miles south of Angels Gate light. The 1940 season was a good one, and by September, plans were made to tow the barge into the shelter of L.A. Harbor for the winter. Those plans were never realized. On the morning of 4 September, patchy fog was lying across the Horseshoe, but by 7 a.m. there were 25 passengers and crew aboard the Olympic II looking forward to a lively day of fishing. Shortly after 7 a.m., the 9,400-ton Sakito Maru, one of the newest vessels in the Japanese-owned NYK line came out of the fog and struck the Olympic II mid-ships on her port side. The force of the collision drove the larger steamer more than halfway through the old square-rigger and pushed the Olympic II more than 300 feet side-ways through the water. Immediately after the collision, the Japanese ship backed away and in just two minutes, the Olympic II plunged 100 feet to the bottom, taking the barge’s master Jack Greenwood and seven passengers with her.
The story of the tragic event that put this magnificent ship on the bottom runs through my mind as we swim across the wreck. Today, nearly 70 years after the sinking, the sea has claimed the Olympic II as its own. Colorful many-hued corynactis totally encrust many parts of the wreck while other areas support bushy golden gorgonians in great profusion. For photographers or those divers that love to peep and poke into nooks and crannies, the wreck is home to myriad invertebrates and has more subjects than you could shoot in a lifetime; for the observer, something new at every turn.
Dive Spot At A Glance
Location: Three and one-half miles south of Angels Gate Lighthouse.
Access: Boat only.
Depths: Typical dive depths 90 to 100 feet.Skill Level: Advanced due to the depth, open water location and periodic current activity.
Visibility: Generally good, 10 to 20 feet, but at times it can be spectacular with visibility ranging in the 50 to 80-foot range.
Photography: Excellent for macro. Can be good for wide angle. Between the wreck and the life, it supports many photo opportunities possible
Hunting: On occasion, lobster is taken here during season but not typically a hunting venue.
Hazards: Adjacent to the main shipping channel a sharp eye must be maintained for vessels both large and small. On occasion, moderate to heavy currents. Fishing line and nets can be a problem in spots.