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The Great Kalakala Reef?

Joshua McNichols

The Kalakala aluminum ferry boat was the pride of Puget Sound in the 1930s. But today, it's just one in a long line of derelict vessels. Abandoned ships litter the sea floor around ports and harbors all over the country. Their ruins create valuable habitat for all sorts of marine life. That's led some people to ask, why can't we just tow the Kalakala out to sea and sink her? KUOW's Joshua McNichols answers that question.


Dr. Robert M. Browning is a historian with the US Coast Guard. He says people used to sink obsolete ships all the time.

Browning: "It's not unlike a car or anything else. Once it becomes too expensive to fix, you just get rid of it. And that was just one of the methods of getting rid of a ship. They would just pull it off to a vacant spot along the shore and run it ashore and just abandon it."

Over time, the parts above the water would rot, but the underwater parts remained in good condition. Browning says that would probably be just as true for an aluminum ship like the Kalakala as it was for the old wooden ships.

He says much of our knowledge of old ships comes from diving archaeologists who study shipwrecks on the ocean floor.

Government officials recently sent an underwater robot to check out the underside of the Kalakala. They found a thriving colony of barnacles, tubeworms and starfish — the kind of stuff that gets scraped off most ships in drydock.

Some people suggest turning the ship into a reef.

People make that comment again and again whenever a story about the Kalakala appears on the internet. But times have changed. Environmental laws and international treaties make it illegal to abandon vessels in the ocean.

Downing: "The United States had an environmental awakening in the 1970s. And these ships weren't really an issue before then."

That doesn't stop people from trying to dump old ships.

The Army Corps of Engineers says today people spend lots of time grinding off all the serial numbers on their derelict boats. Iconic ships like the Kalakala can't get away with that.

The ship's owner tried to sell the boat last month for $1, but that deal fell through.

For KUOW, I'm Joshua McNichols.

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