‘Perfect Storm’ rescue ship could be sunk off Cape May this week

Camera icon source / NJ DEP
U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tamaroa.

A ship known both for a role at Iwo Jima and as a rescue vessel during what would become the best-selling book and movie The Perfect Storm could be sunk this week off the New Jersey Coast as a fish-attracting artificial reef.

The Tamaroa, a former U.S. Coast Guard Cutter, is set to become part of a project designed to provide marine habitat, according to Michael Globetti, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

His agency is working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.  The ship will be dropped in an area known as the Del-Jersey-Land Inshore Artificial Reef, so named because it’s about 26 nautical miles from both Lewes, Del. and Cape May.

Globetti said conditions will dictate the date of the sinking.  The ship is docked at the shipyard of Coleen Marine in Norfolk, Va., and will be towed to the site. 

Officials say they need a three-day window of ocean calm and no firm date has been set.

The 74-year-old Tamaroa was originally named the USS Zuni when it served as a Cherokee class Navy tug during operations at Iwo Jima and is the last surviving vessel from that battle.

The Coast Guard took use of the 205-foot-long ship after the war and renamed it.  The ship was featured in a rescue scene depicted in The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger's gripping account of a lethal nor’easter in 1991 that sank the commercial fishing vessel Andrea Gail and drowned its crew. The 2000 blockbuster movie version starred George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg. 

During the same storm, the Tamaroa rescued three people from the sailboat Satori 75-miles off Nantucket Island, according to a Coast Guard history of the ship.  The ship was then sent to rescue the crew of a New York Air National Guard  helicopter from the 106th Air Rescue Group that went down.

The Tamaroa was decommissioned in 1994.  A plan to turn the ship into a museum failed.

It cost $380,000 to purchase the ship and clean out toxic PCBs and other contaminants to make it ready as a reef. Delaware, which will use the reef as part of its existing artificial reef network, paid 75 percent of the cost.  New Jersey, which also has an existing artificial reef network, paid 25 percent.

Map shows DelJerseyLand location where ship will be sunk. (Source: NJ DEP)

Jeff Tinsman, the reef program coordinator for Delaware's environmental agency, said the ship could have a 100-year-long life underwater.  He said sunken ships serving as artificial reefs develop rich ecosystems of their own.

The Tamaroa will drop about 125 feet to a sandy bottom off the Atlantic Coast. 

Algae, barnacles, and other aquatic life are expected to colonize the ship within weeks.  Sunken vessels attract smaller fish, such as black sea bass, as they hide from predators such as sharks.  Fish also use the ships as shelters during storms.

At the same time, the hard surfaces attract other aquatic life such as blue mussels.

“Big vessels disrupt the tide and create an eddy on the lee side, which attracts schools of bait fish,” Tinsman said. “So they stay there and it attracts the larger predatory fish. The whole food chain kind of gets involved.”

 It also won’t be long before anglers are attracted to the area. Scuba divers are likely to be drawn as well.

“We like to look at this as a second career underwater for the ship,” Tinsman said.