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The Argo Merchant Grounding and Oil Spill

Large tanker vessel on still seas.
Large tanker vessel on still seas.
Man holding a small orange plastic drift card.
The back of a small orange plastic drift card.
Front of an orange plastic drift card.
A small orange plastic drift card is picked up from some debris on a beach.
An orange plastic drift card lies in some foam on a beach.
Starboard side elevation and deck plan for the TTS Argo Merchant.
A large vessel at dock.
A Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a foundering rusted ship.
A Coast Guard vessel near a foundering ship.
Responders, including one in a wetsuit, work on a vessel next to a sinking ship.
A Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a foundering rusted ship.
A wave-like oil slick emanates from a large sinking ship.
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
View of a trail of oil emanating from a foundering vessel at sea.
Waves wash over the deck of a vessel in high seas.
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Oil is visible surrounding a sinking vessel, as waves wash over the side.
Bow of ship projecting from ocean surface.
Broken apart bow and stern of vessel projecting from ocean surface.
Ocean water covers deck of grounded vessel.
Ocean water covers deck of grounded vessel.
Large tanker vessel on still seas.
Argo Merchant, fka Arcturus - 2

Shown here as the Arcturus, the vessel was sold and renamed several times.

Credit: Greek Shipping Miracle, greekshippingmiracle.org
Large tanker vessel on still seas.
Argo Merchant, fka Arcturus - 1

The Argo Merchant was built in Hamburg, Germany and was launched in December 1953 as the Arcturus, under Liberian registry.

It was 641 feet long with a 35-foot draft, and 28,870 DWT.

Credit: Greek Shipping Miracle, greekshippingmiracle.org
Man holding a small orange plastic drift card.
Drift Card Finder, Chris Easton

Chris Easton poses with his drift card "find."

Interested in reading more about drift card found around the world? See the section, Drift Cards in the News, on the page, OR&R Drift Card Studies.

Credit: Neil Hope, Diving Images, www.divingimages.co.uk (Rights reserved)
The back of a small orange plastic drift card.
Drift Card - Back

The back of the drift card shows the logo for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the following information:

OCSEA Program Office
NOAA/ERL (RX4)
Boulder, CO. 80302
U.S.A.

Thank you for your help. You may keep this card as a souvenir. Upon receipt of your reply, we will send you a certificate of appreciation describing our research.

Credit: Neil Hope, Diving Images, www.divingimages.co.uk (Rights reserved)
Front of an orange plastic drift card.
Drift Card - Front

The front of this drift card reads: "Drift Card No. A17978. Please report the number of this card with date and location of recovery to: (turn card over)"

The instructions are also provided in Spanish and French.

Credit: Neil Hope, Diving Images, www.divingimages.co.uk (Rights reserved)
A small orange plastic drift card is picked up from some debris on a beach.
Drift Card in Debris

Back in December 1976, NOAA released these plastic cards from Nantucket Shoals to get an idea of the movement of the Argo Merchant spilled oil. Several of these drift cards have been found over the years in Ireland and France.

Drift cards used today are thin, biodegradable pieces of wood, colored with bright non-toxic paint.

Credit: Neil Hope, Diving Images, www.divingimages.co.uk (Rights reserved)
An orange plastic drift card lies in some foam on a beach.
Drift Card on Beach

March 6, 2014 -- More than 37 years after the Argo Merchant grounding and oil spill, a plastic "drift card" was found by retired postman and beachcomber, Chris Easton, on a heap of marine debris on a beach near Perranporth, Cornwall, England.

Credit: Neil Hope, Diving Images, www.divingimages.co.uk (Rights reserved)
Starboard side elevation and deck plan for the TTS Argo Merchant.
Argo Merchant - Tank Diagram

This starboard side elevation and deck plan for the TTS Argo Merchant indicates the cargo tanks.

Credit: The Argo Merchant Oil Spill On-Scene Coordinator's Report, December 1977. U.S. Coast Guard, Boston, MA Marine Safety Office
A large vessel at dock.
Argo Merchant, 1976

The 23-year old Argo Merchant had a history of mishaps and spills over the years, including two other groundings. It had been described as "an old and poorly managed ship."

It departed Venezuela on Dec. 3, 1976 and was expected to arrive at Boston, Mass., 10 days later but was delayed by weather and mechanical problems.

The U.S. Coast Guard planned to board and inspect the vessel in Boston, but of course, the vessel never made it to port.

This view of the Argo Merchant was captured at Balboa, Panama City, Panama earlier in 1976.

Credit: SwissShips/MB-photo
A Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a foundering rusted ship.
Argo Merchant - Helicopter Hover

After its crew evacuated, the tanker broke apart and spilled its entire cargo of fuel.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
A Coast Guard vessel near a foundering ship.
Argo Merchant - Coast Guard Vessel

The shallow waters and weather conditions made it impossible to offload the oil or salvage the Argo Merchant.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
Responders, including one in a wetsuit, work on a vessel next to a sinking ship.
Argo Merchant - Responders

Attempts to treat the oil were ineffective. Emergency crews tried to burn the oil but the fire did not spread as hoped.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
A Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a foundering rusted ship.
Argo Merchant - Coast Guard Helicopter

Helicopters from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., lifted the 38 crewmembers of the Argo Merchant to safety on Dec. 15 and 16, 1976.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
A wave-like oil slick emanates from a large sinking ship.
Argo Merchant - Oil Slick

The vessel has been the subject of a book, Hard Aground: The Story Of The Argo Merchant Oil Spill, and was featured in the "worst ship" category in the 1979 publication, The Book of Heroic Failures.

Credit: NASA
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Argo Merchant - Sinking Vessel

The bow section drifted 400-500 yards to the southeast and was eventually sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard, while the stern section remained aground.

Credit: NOAA
View of a trail of oil emanating from a foundering vessel at sea.
Argo Merchant - Trailing Oil

The spill posed a threat to the Georges Bank, a huge and historically productive fishing ground used by fishermen from New England and Atlantic Canada.

The resources that were at risk from the impacts of the oil included the region’s commercial fisheries, fish and marine mammals in the region of the spill, and diving coastal birds.

Credit: NOAA
Waves wash over the deck of a vessel in high seas.
Argo Merchant Grounding - Color

The ship’s master requested permission to dump cargo in an effort to control draft and re-float the vessel.

Permission was denied and attempts to lighter and re-float the vessel using emergency pumps and an anti-pollution transfer system were unsuccessful.

Credit: NOAA
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Argo Merchant - Bow

The incident is still one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history, and one of the first spills where NOAA had a significant scientific response role.

The Argo Merchant wreckage remains on the shoal today.

Credit: Henry W. Kendall, courtesy of the Norfolk Charitable Trust
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Argo Merchant - Aircraft View

On December 17, 1976, the vessel began to pivot clockwise and buckle.

On December 21, the vessel broke in two, spilling approximately 36,000 barrels of cargo.

The bow section split forward of the bridge and capsized on December 22, resulting in the loss of the remaining cargo.

Credit: Henry W. Kendall, courtesy of the Norfolk Charitable Trust
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Argo Merchant - Bow and Stern - 2
Credit: Henry W. Kendall, courtesy of the Norfolk Charitable Trust
A sinking vessel's bow and stern have separated in high seas.
Argo Merchant - Bow and Stern - 3
Credit: Henry W. Kendall, courtesy of the Norfolk Charitable Trust
Oil is visible surrounding a sinking vessel, as waves wash over the side.
Argo Merchant - Oil Spilling

The following day (December 16, 1976), the weather worsened and the 38-member crew of the Argo Merchant was evacuated.

Credit: Collection of Doug Helton, NOAA/NOS/ORR
Bow of ship projecting from ocean surface.
Argo Merchant Bow - Close View
Credit: Coast Guard Historian
Broken apart bow and stern of vessel projecting from ocean surface.
Argo Merchant - Bow and Stern
Credit: Coast Guard Historian
Ocean water covers deck of grounded vessel.
Argo Merchant Grounding - 2

When the Argo Merchant ran aground, it was carrying 7.7 million gallons of No. 6 fuel oil, a heavy refined oil.

Its grounding was due to navigational errors. The vessel was found to be 24 miles off course, and carrying two unqualified crew as helmsman, a broken gyrocompass, outdated maps, and an inaccurate radio direction finder.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
Ocean water covers deck of grounded vessel.
Argo Merchant Grounding - 1

On December 15, 1976, the Liberian tanker Argo Merchant ran aground on Nantucket Shoals, off the Massachusetts coast, in high winds and ten foot seas.

Its destination was Salem, Mass., where the tanker was scheduled to deliver a winter's supply of fuel to a local power plant.

Credit: Coast Guard Historian
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