Down to the Sea

Ocean-going ships smack in the middle of prime agricultural land? No ocean in sight? With 234 ships calling on the Port of Stockton in 2019, it’s not as uncommon a sight as it once was. That’s good for business and, as it turns out, habitat restoration, too.

Outbound ship from Stockton nears the Antioch Bridge with the Delta shimmering in the background.

Not knowing much about the area I relocated to in the mid-1970’s, imagine my surprise when I’m exploring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a huge ocean going ship appears. I’m in the middle of prime agricultural land at ground level enjoying the verdant landscape and a ship glides by? Don’t ships need water? Where’s the water? Turns out there is a deep water channel that cuts through the Delta from San Francisco Bay to Stockton and it’s dredged deep enough to handle some pretty impressive ships. To this day, when I see one on the move so far inland from the sea, I’m tempted to chase it while looking through my viewfinder. Sometimes, when I’m doing aerial photography, I’ll see one inching slowly either seaward or to her next stop, the Port of Stockton, and feel the need to direct my pilot to change course and follow it for a while.  

Shortly after leaving the Port of Stockton, this ship finds itself in the midst of fertile Delta farmland.

Even though it wasn’t until 1933 that the first ocean going vessel, the Daisy Gray carrying 750,000 board feet (1,770 metric tons) of lumber from the Pacific Northwest, called on the Port of Stockton, the Delta had long been a marine highway. Cargo boats as early as 1846 began traveling up the San Joaquin River from the San Francisco Bay to Stockton. By the 1850’s, Stockton, at the eastern edge of the Delta, had become a lively shipping and supply center for the Gold Rush era.

After traveling from the Pacific Ocean, through San Francisco Bay and the Delta, these ships are docked at the Port of Stockton to take on cargo destined for distant global ports.

As gold production declined in the 1860’s, agricultural production increased. There was no railroad in California’s central valley yet and enormous amounts of cargo had to be shipped to market. Larger ships were needed but the Delta was too shallow, so in 1906 plans were made to create a deep-water channel with a depth of 14 feet. However by 1917 ships were larger and a depth of 26 feet was then suggested. Federal and local funding was secured and the first dredging contracts for the Stockton Deep Water Channel were awarded in 1930.

Inbound and nearing the Port of Stockton on the San Joaquin River.

By 1933 dredging of the deep-water channel to a depth of 26 feet was completed and the Port of Stockton officially opened for business. To accommodate even larger vessels the channel was dredged deeper and by 1987 the minimum depth was 35 feet at low tide.

A typical summer sundown on the Stockton Deep Water Channel.

Delta habitat restoration —

To maintain the minimum depth it is occasionally necessary to do additional dredging. What to do with all of that dredged material? Why not use it to restore habitat?

The Antioch Dunes is nestled between industry and development on the San Joaquin River.

Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in the Western Delta is the only place on earth that is home to the endangered Lange’s metalmark butterfly. Over the past 100 years, this dune habitat has been severely impacted by human development and, after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, much of the sand was used to rebuild. In 2013 the Port partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to place dredged material at Antioch Dunes. This project will continue for the next ten years. The dunes that are being recreated will also support three essential plants – the naked stemmed buckwheat that is needed by the butterfly, the endangered evening primrose and the Contra Costa wallflower.  The Deep Water Channel depth is maintained and habitat for endangered species is restored in the process – a true win-win. 

Looking like a toy by comparison, the Hawaiian Chieftain visited the Port of Stockton in 2002.
It takes powerful tug boats to turn ships around at the turning basin in Stockton. Even though the water is 35 feet deep at low tide, the bottom mud is stirred.
On the Deep Water Channel just west of the Port of Stockton, anglers are frequently treated to the arrival of a ship.
Having unloaded in Stockton and riding high in the water, this outbound vessel slowly makes her way around a bend near Twitchell Island heading toward the Pacific Ocean.
While photographing a particularly pleasant sundown over the Deep Water Channel, serendipity happened.

Today it is not uncommon to see huge ocean going cargo ships gliding through some of the richest agricultural lands on earth between Stockton, some 80 miles inland, and the Pacific Ocean.  Unless you’re up in a plane or on a levee, you can’t see the water so it can be disconcerting the first time you see one of these big fellas seemingly traveling on land. If you’re near enough when one goes by, it will grab your attention and you might be tempted to reach for your camera, too. 


For more information about the Antioch Dunes, see “Fenced Off” in three parts, by Carrie Alexander, in the October, 2019, issue of Soundings. 

Story and photographs © Rich Turner

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  • Rich, Great photos and wonderful article!! It is still a stunning moment to catch one of those huge ships quietly moving through the water! I hadn’t realized the excellent repurposing of the dredged dirt!! That is a win-win!!

    • Thank you Corie. It is great to see the Antioch Dunes benefitting from the dredged materials, for sure. If you would like to learn more about the Dunes, back in October we published a 3 part series about them, the history, and the people who grew up there. Carrie Alexander did the in-depth articles. Here’s the link to “FENCED OFF” Part 1:

    • Thank you, Cyndy. I learn a lot by doing them. Glad you love the visuals because, coming from you that means a great deal to me.

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