“For God’s sake, hurry. The water is coming into my room!” (One of the last dispatches from Princess Sophia’s telegraph operator.)
Just northwest of Juneau, Alaska’s worst maritime disaster occurred on October 24, 1918 when Canadian Pacific Railway’s steel-built coastal steamer, SS Princess Sophia, ran aground at dawn on Vanderbilt Reef during stormy seas and a blinding winter blizzard. Foul weather and a navigational error placed the ill-fated ship more than a mile off course in the middle of Lynn Canal while she was cruising southbound on her regularly scheduled voyage between Skagway and Vancouver, British Columbia. It was high tide when Princess Sophia slammed into Vanderbilt Reef, a flat rocky outcropping rising fifteen feet above the ocean’s surface at low tide, but whose surface is submerged under high tides or heavy swells, with such force that the 245 foot long, 2,320 ton vessel came to lie atop the rocks with its entire hull completely out of the water.
Sea conditions on that fateful morning were so dire, Princess Sophia’s captain decided that all passengers should remain onboard knowing he could not safely launch the lifeboats and abandon ship without putting lives at risk. Under such blustery conditions, leaping into the cold sea and trying to swim for it would have meant certain death either from drowning, hypothermia or cold water shock. Apparently, all onboard remained calm as they awaited more favorable weather and calmer seas to transfer over to rescue vessels. It would be a rescue that would never come.
On October 25 at 4:50 PM, Sophia’s wireless man radioed to the U.S. lighthouse tender Cedar, “Ship foundering on reef. Come at once!” A second message at 5:20 PM urgently said; “For Gods sake, hurry, the water is coming in my room,” ultimately to be followed with the ship’s final transmission, “You talk to me, so I know you are coming.” Although Cedar left shelter and sailed into the storm to locate the Sophia, every effort to locate the ship was unsuccessful. Rescue was simply not possible due to worsening weather and gale force winds. Cedar searched as long as possible before leaving to overnight in a safe harbor.
Next morning on October 25th, Cedar set out again only to eventually discover that Princess Sophia’s mast was all that remained above water. Sadly, there were no survivors. It was later determined from all the watches worn by those onboard that time had stopped when Princess Sophia slipped beneath the frigid waves at 7:30 A.M., taking all 366 souls onboard with her. Despite the loss of life making this shipwreck the deadliest ever to occur along North America’s west coast, many victims happened to be members of Alaska’s high society and were major contributors to the region’s economy, which virtually collapsed after the sinking. It took several decades for the economy to recover causing some to suggest the SS Princess Sophia sinking was significantly more important than the RMS Titanic tragedy.
A channel marker now sits atop Vanderbilt Reef to warn passing mariners of the shipping hazard. On a windy sunny day we moored the Nautilus Swell’s dive skiff to the permanent marker buoy the Juneau Dive Club has secured to the Princess Sophia’s decaying bow section.
I had wanted to dive the Sophia for so long, I could hardly wait to grasp the descent line. Cloaked with billowy white plumose anemones, the rusting remains of the Princess Sophia starts at approximately 60 feet. There are some levelheaded divers who firmly believe this shipwreck is haunted. With underwater visibility of 80 feet and superb available light all the way down to 120 feet, we could not understand how anyone could get that spooky feeling?
Adorned with numerous species of marine life, the Sophia provides sanctuary to a myriad of critters including crimson anemones, hermit crabs, rose stars, decorator crabs and schools of black rockfish. Hiding in cracks and crevices, heart crabs and decorated warbonnets were quite common near the ship’s collapsing mid section as were a few solitary tiger rockfish. Pausing to photograph some flamboyant Golden Dirona nudibranchs, I was stoked to discover in my periphery of vision, a spiny-finned Alaskan ronquil. Lurking in the wreck’s deeper sections were monster-sized lingcod. Judging from their immense size, there was plenty for them to eat around here. We found ourselves bargaining with our dive computer for more precious minutes of bottom time.
Although badly deteriorated in spots, Princess Sophia’s corroded ribs still conceal some identifiable and intact components. Broken dinner plates and what appeared to be floor tiles could be found amid the ship’s rubble. Not far off the wreck, one diver came across a large rotting trunk containing some old plate glass inside that revealed photographic images of people.
Probing deeper, we encountered two extremely rare prowfish at a depth of 115 feet. Seldom seen as adults, and rarely photographed in the wild, prowfish were once thought to be an exclusively deep-water species that inhabited ocean depths between 300 to 650 feet. Greyish in color with a blunt, rounded head with numerous large sensory pores that look like dots, prowfish measure about two feet long and have no apparent scales. Their diet consists of gelatinous zooplankton and jellyfish, of which we saw many drifting in the water column.
Ripped and broken, Princess Sophia is a beautiful shipwreck resting peacefully in the secluded depths off Vanderbilt Reef. In all, we braved the Sophia’s ghostly depths three times and can’t wait to go back! The only strange apparitions haunting her phantom decks were prowfish. We felt privileged to explore her superstructure and believe it is a tribute to all who lost their lives here that divers make infrequent visits to explore this wreck site. In this way, the events that led up to the sinking of the Princess Sophia will never be forgotten, and the memory of all who perished with her will live on.