by Neil Farrell
Originally appeared in the January 18, 2018 issue of Bay News
Morro Bay Harbor has a new famous visiting vessel, and one that plans an extended stay in port.
The for-hire research and excursion vessel, Maria Cleofas, arrived in the harbor early last week and plans to spend the winter here before sailing again to the Sea of Cortez to continue a research mission seeking to save the most endangered whale in the world, the Vaquitas porpoise.
Built in 1968 by Martinolich ship builders of Tacoma, Wash., Maria Cleofas was originally a commercial fishing crabber, plying the waters of the Bering Sea in the Opelio crab fishery.
She fished, along with her sister ship the Northwestern, which has gained fame on the TV show “Deadliest Catch,” from 1968-2000.
The ship was bought out by the National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS, in a buy-back program to cull the crab fishing fleet. Fishermen in that buy-back were offered as much as $5 million for their boats and permits.
After sitting idle for several years, Maria Cleofas was purchased in 2004, and was completely remodeled, becoming a charter boat running out of Mexico from 2005-07.
When the economy tanked in 2007, the fortunes of her charter business also sank and the ship was placed in dry dock in Ensenada, where she sat until she was donated to a non-profit research organization, Grupo Cleofas, established in 2003 to “form a cultural bridge between the US and Mexico’s scientific and educational communities” and specifically study an island group in Mexico known as the “Tres Marias.”
Tres Marias includes a Mexican federal island prison, in operation since 1905, and so its waters had been off limits for decades. Grupo Cleofas was granted permission to enter the restricted waters for research. Grupo Cleofas (see: www.grupocleofus.org) has worked with NOAA, Scripps Oceanographic Institute, and UCSB from the U.S., and the University of Guadalajara and University of Mexico, among other groups.
She’s now deeply into the research on the Vaquitas Marinas (“little cows” in Spanish). The boat worked from last Oct. 1 to Nov. 15 with NOAA marine mammal scientists on board and coordinated the rescue efforts with the U.S. Navy Dolphin Team, the Mexican Navy, and scientists from all over the U.S., Denmark, and New Zealand.
Vaquitas are the smallest dolphins in the world and also the most in danger of extinction.
According to its website, the Maria Cleofas is 131-feet long, and 33-feet at the beam. She can carry 55,000 gallons of fuel and has a range of some 12,000 miles. She can make 3,000 gallons of fresh water every day and sports twin Mitsubishi 1,140 horsepower diesel engines.
She has six deluxe staterooms with bathrooms, a large galley that seats 14, a plush theater and beer on tap.
Her 5-blade propellers measure 84-inches across and she drafts some 14 feet. Her top speed is 10 knots. There’s a 5-ton hydraulic hoist on the back deck to launch PWCs, rafts and more.
Whether one is studying endangered porpoises or just want to sail to Fiji to go surfing, the Maria Cleofas can take you anywhere in the world. See: www.grupocleofas.org/maria-cleofas-expedition-vessel for more on the ship.