Aquatic Museums, Above And Below Sea Level

For the final day of half-price Museum Month 2012 I decided to finally visit our Maritime Museum of San Diego down by the bay.  I thought this would take between two and three hours so I could maybe do one more small museum later. Seven hours and 525 photos later, I was ready to go home. That means that in the past week as I’ve been taking advantage of the Museum Month entrance discounts, I have taken almost 2,000 photos. My poor, seven-year old, brave, little Nikon. I’m surprised it’s still shuttering. And I’m surprised I’m still standing.

The museum today was much better than I was expecting, hence the extended stay and tons of photos. This was the first time in recent memory that I actually ran out of room on my CF cards. And I took three of them. With a couple more ships still to board, I could have taken many more shots, but I had to finish viewing the vessels with only my eyes. And that felt really weird.

I started with the museum’s pride and joy, the 1863 Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship. After spending quite a bit of time above deck, I was pleasantly surprised to find real museum-quality exhibits below deck showcasing not only the history of the ship, but also the history of sailing and fishing. And these were top-notch, professionally created displays. And boy, does that ship have a lot knotted ropes everywhere. Three hours of my morning went just to the Star of India.

Next up was the 1974 Cold War era Soviet B-39 Attack Submarine. This was an amazing piece of engineering design, both in a good sense and in a horrible one. The super-cramped quarters were covered with pipes, gauges, panels and buttons, anywhere they could find an empty bit of hull wall (even in the enlisted bathrooms). It definitely looked no-frills Soviet. Very thrown-together for function without aesthetic. I was amazed I never bashed my head into something hard and metallic that was protruding or hanging. But it was an impressively huge sub, so again, many photos.

After the B-39 I walked back to the beautiful British frigate replica, HMS Surprise, which was featured in both “Master and Commander” (as the HMS Surprise) and in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” (as the HMS Providence). This ship also had some unexpected displays below deck. Plus canons! I had to start hurrying a bit through the ship since my day was already starting to get long in the keel. Still managed a lot of photo-taking, though. She is a pretty vessel.

Penultimate of my photo-documented visits was aboard the Navy’s research submarine, the USS Dolphin, which holds the (still classified) world’s record for the deepest operating dive. Even though it was built in 1968, six years before the Soviet B-39, it looks years ahead in interior design and comfort. Very clean and shiny with not as many cranks, wheels or switches jutting out from every surface. My American pride was in overdrive. But it is also much smaller than the B-39 and used for completely different purposes.

My last few remaining photos went for the Berkeley, an 1898 Victorian-era steam ferryboat that used to carry passengers across the San Francisco Bay. The outside of the ship is really impressive, but the inside is absolutely stunning. I never would have expected this kind of ornate craftsmanship. The wooden floors, rows of wooden seats and the stained glass window panels are Gilded-Age beautiful. This was a wonderful surprise. (My day seemed to be filled with them.)

The museum has many more beautiful and historically important ships and boats. One, the schooner Californian (the state’s official Tall Ship), was unfortunately closed for educational purposes. I did board the 1904 steam yacht Medea, and walked through its upper deck cabins. As with the Berkeley, the wooden craftsmanship was beautiful. But my last shot was of her hull.

A gathering of a few other, smaller historic boats can be found displayed on the dock.

What I’m really excited about is the future addition of the San Salvador, now being built (with construction open to the public) at Spanish Landing. It will be an exact, sea-worthy replica of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo‘s flagship when he sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542.

Today was a tiring but immensely satisfying visit to San Diego and California’s maritime past.

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