After 52 years underwater, this old whaling ship in Conception Harbour is being drained of fuel

The S.S. Sukha has rested on its side on the bottom of Conception Harbour since the 1960s but now the ship from a largely forgotten era is getting a cleanup.

The coast guard is pumping fuel from the shipwreck of the S.S. Sukha

S.S. Sukha lies on its side, leaking some oil in Conception Harbour prior to having its tank pumped out. (Brad Wade/Asterix Droneworks)

The S.S. Sukha and S.S. Southern Foam, two old whaling ships, lie on their sides metres apart, not far below the surface in Conception Harbour.

The S.S. Charcot, its rusting bow jutting out of the water, is almost within arm's reach of the beach. 

S.S. Charcot lies beached in Conception Harbour. The submerged S.S. Sakhu nearby is having its fuel tank pumped. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

The Charcot broke its mooring during a storm in 1968 and ran aground.

The fate of the other two vessels is a little less clear. They were either scuttled or broke their moorings and sank in 1968, depending on whose version of history you believe.

Either way, the ships are now getting some much needed attention.

The 91-year-old Sukha at one point had its source of power converted from coal to oil. Most of that oil remained in a fuel tank when the vessel sank, but as the water warms up during the summer, oil sheens can be seen on the surface.

The Canadian Coast Guard has had its eye on the vessel for years and is now pumping the oil out.

Bruce English, senior response officer with the Canadian Coast Guard, says pumping thick oil from the S.S. Sukha has been a challenge. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Bruce English, a senior response officer with the coast guard, is leading the effort. While the vessel has deteriorated significantly, he says, the fuel tank has held up.

"We did ultrasonic testing just to test the thickness of the steel. The tank with the oil in it has given us the thickest readings," he said.

"Next to it, the water tank forward, you can crumble with your hand but the actual tank we are dealing with the bunker [fuel] in averaged about seven millimetres of thickness."

Getting the oil out is a challenge, however.

"You won't Google this — removing oil from a whaling ship," English jokes.

"We're making changes and adaptations as we move."

Using a vacuum truck, divers bring out a hose to suck the oil from holes drilled into the fuel tank.

"We're drilling in through the deck. The vessel is completely 90 degrees on its port side."

The oil is so thick, a boiler truck was called in to provide hot water to help reduce the viscosity of the oil for more efficient pumping. More than 14,000 litres has been pumped to date.

A rich history

The ships were part of a whaling past many have forgotten about.

The modern whaling era began in the late 19th century.

In After The Basques, The Whaling Stations of Newfoundland and Labrador, authors Anthony Dickinson and Chesley Sanger write, "During 1898-1972, 27 companies supported by some 60 vessels operated from 21 (whaling) stations to periodically process at least 19,600 whales and market the products locally and internationally."

Heather Elliott writes a blog called The Original Shipster. The wrecks of whaling vessels in Conception Harbour are among her favourite places to visit. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Heather Elliott, a maritime historian who has a blog about ships called The Original Shipster, says when the Hawkes Harbour whaling station in southern Labrador burned down in 1959, five ships were brought to Conception Harbour.

"With the decline of the whaling industry here in Newfoundland, the owners decided to scuttle them. The Southern Foam and the Sukha were scuttled here in the harbour and the Charcot broke her moorings very stubbornly and beached herself where she sits today," Elliott said.

Two other ships, the Sposa and the Stoika, are believed to have been scuttled in Conception Bay near Kelly's Island.

Today, the site in Conception Harbour is a tourist attraction, with a storyboard telling the ships' histories set up near a picnic table.

It's one of Elliott's favourite shipwreck sites.

"I love how accessible it is. You can actually just come and sit within a stone's throw of a shipwreck and really appreciate not only the size of the vessel but the kind of the environment that it would have been anchored in right before it was wrecked."

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  • A previous version of this story said 1,400 litres of oil had been pumped so far. In fact, it's 14,000.
    Jul 31, 2020 1:14 PM NT