Long-lost Isabella, a TV star

<I>OPEN ROAD PRODUCTIONS Photo</I><BR>Diver Mike Fletcher uses high-power lights to capture images of the Isabella which rests in approximately 55 feet of water off Sand Island.

1830 shipwreck in Columbia featured by National Geographic Channel

SAND ISLAND - The cast of the National Geographic Channel's "The Sea Hunters" braved the murky and often unpredictable currents of the Columbia River last week, to capture on video what host Jim Delgado called" the most important untouched shipwreck on the Pacific Coast."

On May 3, 1830 the Hudson's Bay brig Isabella ran aground on south side of Sand Island before it could make its scheduled delivery to Ft. Vancouver. The Isabella later sank after an effort was made to release the ship by removing the cargo of supplies for the blossoming fur trading industry.

Delgado and divers Mike Fletcher and his son Warren appeared at a press conference at the Columbia River Maritime Museum on Friday to talk about the dive.

Fletcher said the constantly changing currents reveal only pieces of what remains of the ship resting about 55 feet below the surface. He also said the structure rises about eight feet off the river's floor, and about one half of the hull is still intact.

Warren Fletcher, who is beginning his second season with the television show, said the location makes the dive a difficult one, but the freshwater of the Columbia River has actually helped preserve what is left of the wooden frame.

"Your visibility can change very quickly down there because of the currents and the muddy bottom," he said. "It can go from 20 or 25 feet to nothing in just seconds. The good news is the moving water actually rinses the wreckage. Without the freshwater, there would probably not be any wreckage to look at."

Flechter said by the number of little crab scuttling across the river bottom, crabbers should be in for a good harvest.

"It was like a scene from Indiana Jones; the entire (river) floor moves because it is covered with little crab," he said. "I would think this is going to be a very healthy crab fishery for the next several years."

This was Delgado's third trip to the Isabella since Chinook-based fisherman Daryl Hughes snagged the sunken ship on Sept. 23, 1986. Delgado said the shifting waters have revealed different parts of the ship each time he has been to the wreckage.

"The wreck is important because the Isabella was instrumental in development of trading on the West Coast, as far as Canada and South America. It's a very significant wreck in the grand scheme of things," Delgado said.

He said it had been thought for some time that a hole cut in the side of the hull was used to relieve stress when the crew was trying to unload cargo after the ship had run aground. This time, Delgado said the divers found more holes that had not been visible during previous visits.

No artifacts were found because the original crew managed to salvage most of the cargo before the ship sank.

In total, Delgado's crew made five dives throughout the week, each lasting only 15 minutes. Diving time was limited to "slack tide" periods when currents weaken and the river's turbidity decreases.

The wreck is the second oldest known on the Columbia River, according to curator Dave Pearson of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. The oldest, the William and Ann, which sank in 1829, has never been found.

The "Sea Hunters" have investigated the most challenging dives in the world, said Mike Fletcher who recently found a World War I U-boat as well as the remains of the Carpathia, famous for rescuing the survivors of the Titanic disaster. The Carpathia sank after it was hit with a torpedo in the Irish Sea.

The episode of Sea Hunters featuring the Isabella should air "in about a year," said Delgado. "It is hard to say at this point when the show will air.

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