Search Effort

UB 88 was considered by some to be the most elusive shipwreck off of Southern California. She had remained undiscovered for more than 80 years somewhere on the bottom of the Catalina Channel. On July 9, 2003, utilizing high-resolution digital imagery provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, the wreck of UB 88 was located in deep water southeast of the Los Angeles Harbor lighthouse.

As a sport fisherman I learned a long time ago that the key to catching fish was to fish where the fish are. Marine life is attracted to underwater structure, whether natural or artificial, as it provides the basis for a food chain, and learning where these “spots” are could greatly enhance my success on the water. Over the years I have collected a large database of fishing spots. Natural rocks, reefs, and hard bottom areas, as well as artificial reefs and shipwrecks.

In 1989 I purchased a book about Southern California shipwrecks. This is the first time I had read about the UB 88. I was fascinated by this. An actual WWI German U-boat a short distance off of Los Angeles! I had never heard of such a thing. Amazingly, according to the book no one has been able to find it.

But I have heard stories over the years about people that supposedly know where it is. One specific story comes to mind. I had read an article about fishing Southern California wrecks in a nationally published sport-fishing magazine. The article was written by a local fisherman (who shall remain nameless). He stated that the submarine sank in 120 feet of water, which I know now is incorrect. He also said “The UB 88 has yet to be located by anyone – except me.” He concluded by saying “By the way, I would give up my wife before divulging the location of the UB 88!” Pretty bold statements I thought. A year or two later I happened to see this same writer walking the isles of a local fishing tackle and boat show. I stopped him specifically to ask him about the UB 88. At the time I thought he might really know where it is. I didn’t ask him to divulge the location, I just wanted to know "how" he was so certain that it was really the UB 88. Did he send down a diver or a video camera or what? Well he couldn’t give me an answer to that question, but he still insisted that he knew it's location.

I began my research by obtaining the logbooks of the three Navy ships involved in the sinking on January 3, 1921. I requested the logbooks of the Pocomoke, Wickes, and New Mexico from the U.S. National Archives. Unfortunately, these reports are vague and conflicting regarding the exact location of the wreck. This is probably one reason why it has been so difficult to locate. I was able to come up with a broad search area that I believed contained the submarine.

In 1999 I had read about the work that the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) had been doing mapping the waters off of Long Beach, CA. They had been using some very sophisticated multibeam sonar equipment to generate high-resolution 3D images of the seafloor. The work they have done is nothing short of spectacular!

LA Perspective View
3D perspective view of the Long Beach Shelf. This area was mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1996 and 1999 with state of the art multibeam sonar. Image provided by the USGS.

I contacted, Jim Gardner, Chief Scientist and head of the USGS Pacific Seafloor Mapping Project to learn more about what they were doing and to see if any of their data was available to the public. As it would turn out, the data would be made available but it wasn't ready yet. Fortunately the data was available by the time I started the search for the UB 88. I found out that obtaining the data would be the easy part. It’s posted right on their website. The hard part would be the analysis. The software needed to view and query this data is called a Geographic Information System (GIS). The best GIS software available is ArcGIS by ESRI. ArcGIS and the necessary extensions carried a handsome price tag. This software has a steep learning curve and is not easily mastered.

Search Map
Our search map of the area off of Long Beach, California. Image by Gary Fabian. Survey data provide by the USGS.

Having learned the software well enough for my needs, I proceeded to identify the GPS positions of any targets that fell within the search area and made a list of their coordinates. The plan would be to visit each site using a Lowrance recording sonar. The recording sonar would become very useful as I could log all of my trips and review the sonar records later at home on my PC. After identification of a valid target of some relief, we would send down a tethered video camera to see what was there.

Drop Camera
Our tethered SeaViewer drop camera with 500 feet of cable. This little camera enabled us to examine many underwater targets very quickly and avoid the time consuming task of putting a diver in the water. The plastic fin mounted on the back of the housing keeps the camera pointed in the direction of drift. Simple and effective.

We’ve been actively searching for the wreck on a weekend basis for about fourteen months. Not every weekend. Sometimes we would go several weeks without going out on the boat. It’s been such an obsession with me that I haven’t even done much fishing during this time.

Over two dozen targets were examined before finding the sunken U-boat. Almost every spot we looked at was a pile of rocks. These rock piles likely fell from rock barges as they were brought over from Catalina Island to be used for various building projects. The biggest being the construction of the Federal Breakwater protecting Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors. Every rock pile was teaming with life. Clouds of rockfish were on every one. Unfortunately (fortunately for the rockfish), all these spots are beyond the present legal depth limit for the take of rockfish.

First Look at UB 88
The first look at UB 88 on the vertical sonar. This image is a cross sectional profile of the U-boat resting on the bottom of the Catalina Channel as the survey vessel passed overhead. The dark red line represents the seabed. The large red target is the submarine. The boomerang shape that appears seemingly below the seabed is actually a phenomenon that occurs from side lobes of the sonar beam recording the target before the survey vessel arrives and after it passes overhead.

Shell Hole
One of the first images recorded of UB 88. Our video camera captured this image on July 9, 2003. The black area is masking the GPS location of the wreck. Note the large hole from a 4" round fired from USS Wickes on January 3, 1921.

Kendall Raine and John Walker
Kendall Raine and John Walker discussing their dive plan aboard the SUNDIVER.

Fred Colburn and Scott Brooks
Fred Colburn and Scott Brooks answering questions for Los Angeles Times reporter.

During the search phase the team consisted only of myself and Capt. Ray. After locating the wreck we needed to find a couple of trustworthy divers to round out the team. Considering the depth of the wreck we couldn’t get just anybody. This is entirely Ray’s department and he knew immediately who to contact to do this job right. Ray invited local technical divers, Kendall Raine and John Walker. Ray knew Kendall and John from the local dive community and had worked with both on previous trips to locate the submarine. Both had extensive deep wreck and cave diving experience using mixed gases. With thousands of dives a piece including such wrecks as the SS Andrea Doria, USS Monitor, USS Wilkes Barre and the Civil War-era gold ship SS Brother Jonathan. Divers Scott Brooks and Fred Colburn would later join our team on subsequent dives to the UB 88. I'm very grateful for everyone's assistance in documenting this small piece of California's maritime history. It couldn't have been done without their help.

-Gary Fabian