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Scientists make shocking WWII-era discovery off California coast: 'It was a big surprise for us'

"Our expectations were we'd find fragments of barrels along all these debris lines."

"Our expectations were we'd find fragments of barrels along all these debris lines."

Photo Credit: iStock

Video taken along the ocean floor off the Southern California coast shows a crab going about its business next to a big pile of World War II munitions — not something the scientists operating the underwater camera were expecting to find. 

The researchers from the University of California San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography were surveying the seafloor south of Los Angeles in a search for barrels of DDT, a toxic pesticide that was found to have been dumped in that area after WWII. 

The chief scientist of the expedition, Dr. Eric Terrill, was caught off guard by the explosive discovery. 

"It was a big surprise for us," Dr. Terrill said in an interview. "Our expectations were we'd find fragments of barrels along all these debris lines, and we started coming upon objects that weren't barrels." 

The munitions in question included Hedgehog and Mark IX depth charges meant to deter submarines and Mark 1 smoke floats used to disguise ships in combat. The U.S. Navy confirmed that the munitions were "likely a result of World War II-era practices" and said it would take steps to ensure the waste is managed properly moving forward. 

While the 80-year-old munitions were an interesting discovery, the idea that all this toxic waste (never mind potentially explosive munitions) is just sitting on the ocean floor is extremely concerning. 

It was discovered in 2019 that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT — a pesticide so toxic it was banned in 1972 — were dumped off the Southern California coast near Santa Catalina Island from 1947 to the early '60s. 

DDT, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was banned because of its devastating impact on the environment. To this day, DDT-related compounds are found in marine animals such as dolphins and even non-marine animals like California's endangered condors. Exposure to the toxic pesticide is also causing increasing rates of cancer in sea lions along the coast. 

While efforts to locate and safely remove these barrels of poison from the ocean can not happen fast enough, there is some progress being made. 

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography team surveyed 135 square miles of the dumpsite and recorded over 300 hours of video footage in 2023. The survey was funded by part of the almost $12 million awarded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as directed by late Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Alex Padilla.

"The federal funding we secured will be significant for advancing research to understand the scope and scale of DDT pollution off the coast of Southern California," Sen. Feinstein tweeted early last year. "We must act quickly to clean this up."

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