The Saratoga Shipwreck Project
The Search for the SARATOGA
September 2004 I set out to locate the remains of the S.S. SARATOGA
beneath the waters of Prince William Sound. With fellow shipwreck divers
Rob Weller and Brock Harrison, our boat sailed from the port community
of Whittier and reached the abandoned mining town of Ellamar on September
6. In addition to our cold-water diving equipment, the expedition was
equipped with a marine magnetometer, an electronic device that senses
the presence of ferrous metal underwater and is used extensively to
locate submerged shipwrecks.
I have looked for other shipwrecks whose location has
not been documented, and it can be incredibly frustrating to search
miles of barren seafloor hoping to stumble upon the wreck of a ship.
Thanks to the historical record of the SARATOGA’s loss provided
by Ejnar Mikkelsen and the transcript of the court of inquiry, we had
an excellent account of the ship’s course from Ellamar to the
treacherous reef off Busby Island. From that record we were able to
locate two shallow reefs, either one of which could have been the rock
encountered by Captain Schage on March 20, 1908.
The waters just offshore from Busby Island plummet
quickly to depths of 50 and 100 fathoms—far too deep for divers
to reach—but our hope was that the SARATOGA lay in shallower water
close to the reef that claimed her. We marked off a grid on a detailed
marine chart of the area and began searching with the magnetometer.
Our primary targets were the waters NW and SE of the reef, for these
are the directions most likely to be on the downwind side of the vicious
winter storms that reportedly swept the SARATOGA from the reef many
months after the accident. The historical record seemed clear that the
ship was badly damaged and flooded, with the probable result that the
hulk would not have had enough buoyancy to drift very far before sinking.
With Brock steering the boat in a careful sweep that
carried us in an ever-expanding arc away from Busby Island, Rob and
I took turns watching the digital display on the instrument. A magnetometer
search for a lost shipwreck is a mix of excitement and mind-numbing
boredom, as the towed “fish” sends electronic signals to
the boat that can signify the presence of iron on the seafloor. The
hulk of an intact shipwreck contains enough iron to send the instrument
into spasms of intense beeping, but even the smallest of positive readings
often indicate scattered wreckage that can lead searchers closer to
the main wreck site. It is critical to watch the display at all times,
and as the hours passed and each search pass became longer, we became
less optimistic and more confused about where the SARATOGA could have
In the end, our research and our site work failed to
locate the lost steamship. Our search of the waters around the tip of
Busby Island, and areas up to a half-mile away in each direction that
the SARATOGA would likely have drifted before sinking, turned up nothing.
Could it be that the 1908 salvage efforts had ultimately succeeded,
and the ship had not gone to the bottom after all? Or had the old steamship
exhibited such a fierce determination to live that the hulk drifted
miles away in the March storm that swept her off the reef, finally sinking
in water hundreds of feet beyond the reach of scuba divers? The answer
may never be known, and the wreck of the SARATOGA—wherever it
lies hidden—for now must remain undiscovered and unexplored.
Click here to read my article on the wreck of the Saratoga