It’s happening with increasing regularity – a destination or landmark damaged or seriously destroyed by an amateur photographer hoping to rise to instant Instagram fame.
In pursuit of more followers, Graffiti artist Casey Nocket chose to graffiti seven national parks for her online art series. Several YouTube users took a destructive road trip, driving through off-limits Bonneville Salt Flats for a wakeboarding stunt, then trampled over the fragile Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Online adventurer Trev Lee broke into Yosemite National Park during the 2013 government shutdown and illegally built huge campfires on top of popular mountains, all while a fire ban was in place by the park as it fought to contain the third largest wildfire in California’s history.
In Marin County, California, one favorite destination among local photographers, historians, and tourists is the abandoned fishing vessel Pt. Reyes, sometimes referred to as the Tomales Bay Shipwreck. It’s located near the town of Inverness, about an hour north of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful coastal area where oysters are farmed, tourists visit gift shops and historic buildings, and a favorite place for cyclists to tour the windy roads. Mt. Tamalpais, known as the birthplace of mountain biking, rises above.
The Pt. Reyes is a fishing vessel that was originally dragged aground by the land’s previous owner who had intended to fix the ship up. As years passed, he never actually got around to the repairs, leaving the boat, which still bears the name, “Point Reyes,” to decay on the shore. It sits aground on a sand bar, about 50 yards from the road and accessible to the public via a small walking path. While it’s technically on private property, the path is open anytime for visitors to the area. For the past several decades, photographers have traveled here to capture shots of the iconic vessel against the beautiful backdrop of Tomales Bay. The shipwreck is listed on Yelp as a ‘landmark and historical site,’ where it has a four out of five star rating. It is also listed by numerous Californian review sites as a must-see sight in the state.
For the most part, tourists and photographers have respected the beauty of the Pt. Reyes and have generally treaded lightly around it. Some have chosen to explore the inside of the boat, have family photos taken in front of it, and several wedding proposals have taken place here as well. Aside from a few instances of graffiti being painted on its side, her largest scars have been from nature taking its course on the chipping paint and exposed wood that has been slowly chipping and rotting away.
On February 20, 2016, one photographer chose to use the Pt. Reyes in a different way – by combining photography, fire, and the iconic shipwreck. The end result was an uncontrolled fire that gutted the Pt. Reyes, prompting outrage from local residents, photographers, and visitors.
One of his photos posted to Instagram (which has now been removed) seemed to explain what had happened that night. The image shows the wreck lit against a night sky by long bright lines of color, the result of a long-exposure shot produced by burning steel wool and spinning it around in the air. The sparks are believed to have landed on the exposed rear deck and inside the wreck where they ignited the fire. It took the local fire department 2 hours to put out the fire, and it was finally being extinguished at 4 a.m. By that time, the entire stern of the boat had been destroyed.
While the wreck remains where it burned, The National Parks Service has said it will now arrange for the structure to be torn down and the wreckage removed from the shoreline.
Shortly after the fire, the photographer who took the photos, James Stewart, chose to come forward and explain his version of events which led to the destruction of the Pt. Reyes. He claims he is innocent of setting the boat on fire.
Stewart claims that he was in the area taking photographs of the night sky when a group of kids gathered on the boat and started lighting steel wool and spinning it in the air. He says that he took a picture as he packed up and left, later posting it to his Instagram account. He says he learned after that the boat had burnt and he was being blamed and, at the request of a commenter, he removed the shot from his Instagram page.
While it may seem to be a case of his word against the silence of the mystery group of kids, James has continued to post some curious photos on his Instagram page, where he continues to light steel wool on fire and spinning it to create dramatic night photos. James’ current Instagram page features at least 5 such photos, taken as recently as November 2018 where he spins fire at San Francisco’s historic Sutro Baths.
Unfortunately, the Point Reyes is now likely destined for a landfill, locals have lost a beloved landmark, and hikers, explorers, and photographers have lost one of their favorite destinations along the Marin County coastline.
The photographer will not be charged with any crime, according to the local fire department and fire Chief Jim Fox. According to the law, the boat was already damaged prior to the fire and therefore no crime has been committed.
Did Instagram photo lead to destruction of west Marin shipwreck?