The Discovery

Rockfish, Inc. completed twelve expeditions between 2017 and 2022. Each expedition included a crew of six to eight people and used a variety of underwater equipment to search for the ship including: towed side scan sonar, a bottom-towed underwater camera sled, underwater tracking systems and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The R/V SeaBlazer operated by Rockfish during the search efforts for the SS Pacific. (Photo Rockfish, Inc)

Rockfish, Inc. first imaged the SS Pacific wreck site during an October 2021 sonar survey. It presented initially as a target warranting further sonar imaging, but on the subsequent pass near the target it did not appear to be a shipwreck. Post-survey detailed data analysis back on shore suggested, however, that the target warranted further investigation. Inclement weather bringing high seas prevented re-examination of the target until July 2022. Rockfish completed additional side scan and ROV reconnaissance of the target, but its nature was still difficult to confirm. Was it a geological feature or was it human-made? Sonar passes were made at varied angles to determine the best spot to drop an ROV for visual examination. The entire wreck site was examined by two ROVs custom built by Rockfish. Each robot is capable of operating in up to 1000 meters of water depth and includes an imaging sonar and small manipulator, a “grabber”.

This low resolution image is an imprint from a portion of the upper deck. The wood no longer exists, but the impression is clear in this and other sonar images. The bright shape in the lower right is part of the steam machinery from the ship and is approximately two meters in diameter. The steam machinery was later examined by the ROV and found to have a steam pipe, or valve, parallel to the main structure. (Image Rockfish, Inc.)
Team member Paul T. prepares the ROV for launch, somewhere off the Washington Coast. (Photo Rockfish, Inc.)
ROV pilot Sarah H. proudly poses with the first artifacts recovered from the SS Pacific since 1875. (Pre-curation archeological plan protocols required they be kept in water and in a light-free environment).

During the video survey, Rockfish ROV operator, Sarah H. successfully identified an object on the seafloor and deployed her ROV’s manipulator to delicately grasp and recover wood samples from the main portion of the wreck. The heavily worm eaten wood was saved by nearby copper ship’s hull plating, which inhibited further borer activity. It has a sawn, finished surface on one side. The wood is scheduled for conservation at the Texas A & M University’s Marine Preservation Laboratory, operated under the university’s Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation. A portion of firebrick was also recovered.

Between the site’s location, sonar images of various distinct sidewheel steamboat features and the artifacts they’d recovered the exhausted crew was ecstatic: Rockfish President Jeff Hummel’s over 30 year-long quest to discover the West Coast’s most elusive and sought after major shipwreck had ended in success!

Rockfish completed the expedition on the wreck site, a total of 19 hours of ROV bottom time was logged on the primary site and the debris area near the wreck. Over 160,000 square meters area was examined in detail.

This fire brick section was recovered from the wrecksite debris field lending credence to 1875 reports that one of the SS Pacific‘s boilers ruptured at the surface. The brick is embossed with partial lettering, but the manufacturer has not yet been determined. (Photo Rockfish, Inc.)

The exact location and description of the wreck site are currently proprietary and will not be released at this time. The general location of the wreck will be published. Senior US District Judge James L. Robart of the US District Court for the Western District of Washington has issued an order restricting competing salvors from entering this area.

A small portion of the heavily worm eaten wood from the SS Pacific. The wood was recovered by ex-Navy ROV operator, Sarah H, using “Falkor” one of the ROVs developed by Rockfish. (Photo Rockfish, Inc.)

The survivors stated that the SS Pacific broke apart immediately prior to foundering. Rockfish located the paddle wheels several hundred meters from the location of the main portion of the hull, confirming the survivors’ accounts. The wooden paddle wheels rotated and dropped straight to the bottom. The are embedded with just a small portion the steel driveshaft protruding above the surface. The paddle wheels weigh an estimated 40,000 lbs. The Rockfish archeological team suspects that the wood paddles are still intact beneath the soft muddy seafloor.

The paddle wheels of the SS Pacific were 24 ft. in diameter and weighed 40,000 lbs. (image Rockfish, Inc.)
The cross section of the paddle wheel showing the 16 inch central shaft made of a composite of iron and steel. (image Rockfish, Inc.)
Close up of the Pacific’s starboard paddle wheel, 1875. Photo courtesy MOHAI, Seattle Historical Society Collection, SHS11765.
The paddle wheels on the seafloor located several hundred meters from the main wreck site. The bright spot in the center of each depression is the steel driveshaft protruding a few feet from the bottom. The other bright spots are pieces of trawl net and cable which were at one time caught on the shaft. They were later dislodged by other fishing trawls and deposited nearby. The lower paddle wheel landed at a slight angle and the depression is slightly elongated. Both depressions are eight meters in diameter. Both were examined by ROV. (Image Rockfish, Inc.)