Eco-watchdog ship will remain at the Redwood City Port

As the U.S. Geological Survey prepares to raise anchor and move research equipment from its longtime home at the Port of Redwood City to a new facility in Santa Cruz, one historic vessel will remain.

The Polaris, the USGS’s 92-foot-long wooden workhorse, has scouted Bay waters since 1971. Its primary duty is studying the Bay’s long-term ecosystems and contaminants, making it the hub of one of the longest running such research projects in the country, according to USGS Project Director Jim Cloern.

“The Polaris has … affected how we look at the health of our bay,” said USGS researcher Tara Schraga.

The Polaris has contributed to several important research missions, such as studying changes in the Bay’s phytoplankton population — the bottom of the food chain in the waterway — and levels of pollution and contaminants, according to Cloern.

After the federal Clean Water Act passed in 1972, oxygen returned to shallower regions of the South Bay, ending yearly fish kills, but problems remain with urban runoff and contaminants such as PCBs and mercury, Cloern said. The Polaris helps the USGS track how those contaminants, and the “regime change” that happens in the Pacific Ocean every 20 years, influence plant and animal life in the Bay.

“Our theme is, the Bay is always changing,” Cloern said.

The USGS moved the Polaris and other equipment to a 3-acre area at the Redwood City Port in 1983. However most of the agency's operations are now relocating, following an announcement by Port officials in 2005 that they were interested in leasing out the berth — worth roughly $15,000 a month to a maritime-related shipper, according to Port Director Mike Giari.

The move to Santa Cruz should be complete by December, but the Polaris will stay on. “It didn’t make sense to relocate it,” Giari said.

Lee Phillips, the vice president of an insurance company, commissioned the Polaris as a private yacht, the Pasado Mañana, in 1926. One of the secrets of its longevity is its construction, which includes an 8-inch-thick keel and a 2.5-inch-thick body, according to Captain Byron Richards.

The Pasado Mañana was used to help construct the San Joaquin levees, and then changed hands among oilmen and the United States Army, which used it in the Puget Sound area during World War II. It was crashed and repaired, used as a charter vessel between Mexico and Alaska, and returned to the Bay in the 1960s, when it was donated to the University of California at Berkeley.

Despite three engine replacements, the Polaris shows no signs of nearing retirement, according to Richards.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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