Serendipitous Discovery Of 19th-Century Shipwreck Stumps Researchers

ROV Deep Discoverer approaching the bow of the shipwreck. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

What was meant to be a routine equipment test has led to one of the first marine discoveries found this year by NOAA’s Okeanos research vessel.

Researchers in the Gulf of Mexico were conducting what is known as a shakedown – a trial expedition meant to test, calibrate, and integrate equipment in advance of upcoming missions in order to ensure that both personnel and gear are in-tune and ready to rock as the ship sets off to explore some of the planet’s most remote locations: the seafloor. During an engineering dive meant to test a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), sonar serendipitously picked up the shape of a shipwreck on the bottom of the seafloor.

That’s when crews opened up the ship’s live feed to scientists around the world, who watched the dive in real time. Though many details are still unknown, general assumptions were made by leading marine archaeologists from across the globe.

The vessel is believed to be a sailing vessel built in the mid-19th century, possibly a schooner or brig, that measures about 37.8 meters (124 feet) long. It is made of wood with copper sheathing covering the bottom of the hull, which has helped to retain some of the integrity of the vessel due to its antifouling properties. We do not know the age of the vessel when it was lost – it could have been decades after being built – but experts were able to characterize the time period during which it was constructed based on the ship’s stem and bow, hull body, and remains of the windlass.

A low-resolution photomosaic of the wreck site, produced by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Marine Archaeologist Scott Sorset using video imagery collected during the dive. A higher-resolution version will be developed eventually, providing another tool for studying this shipwreck. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. NOAA

No artifacts remain to tell us about the crew on board, where they were going, or what happened, nor do we know what events transpired before the ship sank, but there are a few clues. All structures above the waterline are missing and there are not many traces of standing rigging. A number of timbers look like they were charred and several fasteners appear bent – both indications of burning, which leads researchers to believe the ship possibly caught fire and was nearly completely consumed before it sank. This could help explain why almost half of the ship is gone and there are no personal possessions or deck artifacts observed around it.

Copper sheathing around the hull has protected the bottom portion of the ship from marine life that has otherwise invaded the vessel. The numbers “2109” are visible on the trailing edge of the ship’s rudder, as well as on the nails that fastened the numbers to the ship.

A close-up view of the bow. Marine life is prevalent on the wreck, except on the copper sheathing, which still retains its antifouling ability to keep the hull free of marine organisms like Teredo navalis (shipworm) that would otherwise burrow into the wood and consume the hull or barnacles that would reduce the vessel’s speed. NOAA
The numbers “2109” are visible along the trailing edge of the shipwreck's rudder. The pattern of nails securing the copper sheathing is plainly visible. NOAA
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