A version of this article first appeared in Quest: The Journal of Global Underwater Explorers
This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions and honestly, it is a fair question. When I first started working for the Waitt Institute as a research assistant, many of the projects they supported involved historic shipwrecks and, as noted, these are usually quite expensive, and often dangerous expeditions. With the global economy still recovering, dire warnings about the state of our environment, and our educational systems struggling to transition into the twenty-first century, people often ask if funding wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere. So I set out to ask a couple of people with caring expertise how they would respond to such a question. The answers I received were diverse; yet, interestingly, all of the responses are compelling enough on their own to not only continue exploring and conserving, but perhaps even to do it with greater urgency than ever before.
Most people are familiar with the view that shipwrecks are very important for understanding our past, which is exactly why I chose to speak with Dr. James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage in the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Not only is Dr. Delgado considered one of the world’s foremost experts in maritime archaeology, he is also incredibly balanced and practical in his thinking, which came through loud and clear when we sat down to discuss the need to explore and conserve shipwrecks.
“Our waterways are our ancient highways; they are the means by which humans spread out across the globe. So much of our history is hidden beneath the surface of our oceans, our past is lying there waiting to be discovered and tell its story.” Dr. Delgado’s response is what most of us would think, albeit in more eloquent language. He went on to point out that every shipwreck that sits beneath the water is a tragic moment in history. Most often, lives were lost and human remains are likely entombed within or around the wreck site. When a shipwreck is located and identified, we are then able to bring closure to the stories of the men and women who lost their lives and honour them with a proper burial ceremony.
This was the case on one of Dr. Delgado’s most recent projects when his team, aided by a group of local divers, was able to identify a wreck that had baffled experts for decades off the coast of New Jersey. The wreck turned out to be the Robert J. Walker, a U.S. Coast Survey (a predecessor to NOAA) steamship that went down on June 21, 1860, taking with her the lives of 20 men and women. After the team was able to identify the vessel, they held a ceremony for the victims and laid a wreath over the remains.
Shipwrecks and Ocean Conservation
Dr. Philippe Rouja, Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks, provides another perspective from which to advocate the need for exploration and conservation. Dr. Rouja is a medical anthropologist by training, a marine archaeologist by vocation and a marine conservationist by passion, so you can imagine that his viewpoint is going to be unique. He believes strongly that shipwrecks are some of our most valuable resources in more ways than one.
When I first asked my question, Dr. Rouja was a little uncertain how to answer. After all, the idea of not exploring and conserving shipwrecks seemed completely absurd to him; it was as if I were speaking in a foreign language. He cited many of the same reasons as Dr. Delgado, yet as our conversation continued, it took a turn in an unexpected direction.
“Everyone is excited by shipwrecks. You can tell pretty much anyone the story of finding a wreck and they will listen intently, it excites them. It isn’t the treasure that intrigues them so much, rather it is the thrill that one experiences at the moment of discovery‚ we all want to share in that.” He went on to explain that shipwrecks are often the first thing that intrigues people about our oceans and what lies beneath the surface. “Shipwrecks are broadly appealing [and] fascinating, and explorers are doing an amazing job of sharing their discoveries with the world through images and films.” Thanks to divers and their willingness to share their discoveries, more and more people are looking below the surface and peering into a realm that is less explored and understood than the surface of the moon.
Dr. Rouja then went on to say, “Shipwrecks are an invaluable resource for raising awareness about our oceans.” It is a well-established fact that shipwrecks have some of the most diverse and dense biomass concentrations of any ocean environment. He went on to explain that as people see films or read the magazines and look at these wrecks, they are also looking at corals, anemones, fish – melting pot of marine biodiversity. The hope is that the story of a shipwreck will draw in a broad audience, and the visions they see of life in the subaquatic realm will spark their curiosity and ignite a lifelong passion for the oceans. We want – wait, scratch that – we need the world to come and see the documentaries, visit museums, read books, look at pictures, and be excited, ask questions, inspire research and drive conversations. Shipwrecks are the ideal triggers to launch people’s curiosity and inspire them to care for our most valuable resource, our oceans.
A Race Against Time
As noted earlier, shipwrecks contain something even more valuable than the cargo they may be carrying. They hold historical information that has yet to be recorded, entombed lives that cannot be resurrected, and they provide habitats for marine life that is often threatened, endangered or on the verge of extinction. With that said, every day that a wreck goes undiscovered, it deteriorates a little more, making it harder to identify and, therefore, limiting the information that can be gleaned from it. With every moment that passes, these wrecks run the risk of being destroyed by both natural and man-made causes.
Brendan Foley of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution wrote a compelling paper entitled “Impact of Fishing on Shipwrecks” that warns of the irreparable damage caused by commercial fishing activities. He discusses both the environmental implications and the losses to the historical record that can be brought about through activities such as trawling and even the use of illegal dynamite. Foley points out, “Wrecks are artificial reefs, with entire ecosystems forming around them. Where there are fish, fishermen are not far behind.” He goes on to say, “Ancient shipwrecks are more delicate [than modern wrecks]. Because the wooden hull is consumed by a variety of animals, an ancient shipwreck typically consists of ceramic or inorganic artifacts lying on the sea floor. If a trawl net is dragged through an ancient wreck, these delicate objects will be smashed and scattered. Repeated trawls may eliminate all traces of the wreck.”
With fishing technology advancing at a breakneck pace, fishermen are not only locating fish with more efficiency, they are also unintentionally locating shipwrecks due to the fact that they are where fish like to congregate, especially during spawning season.
The Divers’ Contribution
Interestingly, both Drs. Delgado and Rouja noted the important role that divers play in adding to the narrative of shipwrecks. Divers are often the first to locate a wreck, the first to explore them, and also the ones who provide scientists with the initial data used to begin identifying a shipwreck. This was the case with the Robert J. Walker. In the 1970s, local divers had first been alerted to a possible wreck by fishermen and purchased the coordinates for $25 so they could e
xplore it. The divers in turn alerted marine archaeologists and shared the information they found over the years, eventually leading to the identification of the wreck.
Dr. Rouja works closely with local Bermuda divers and credits them with contributing substantial amounts of information that is used in identifying and understanding wreck sites. Take for example, the Mary Celestia. She has long been one of Bermuda’s most popular dive sites. Knowledgeable local divers knew that items were regularly exposed on the ship after heavy storms. After a particularly strong winter storm event that saw huge swells pound the south shore of Bermuda and the site of the Mary Celestia local divers quickly alerted Dr. Rouja of the potential for artifacts to be exposed. Quickly diving the site, he found signs of a stash of contraband that had been hidden deep in the bow, and covered by sand for nearly 150 years! The artifacts included perfectly corked wine, perfume, cologne, and even shoes. Local divers quick action lead Dr. Rouja to team up with Dr. Delgado, the Waitt Institute, and local volunteer divers to perform a proper investigation of the newly discovered artifacts. All of this was possible because of the local divers who first made the discovery.
Kristina Kenniker is a passionate advocate for ocean exploration and conservation. Her primary focus has been on fisheries issues, particularly understanding the global impacts of their health and well-being. She got her start as a research assistant to the executive director of the Waitt Institute where she worked with explorers and scientists from around the world. Currently serving as codirector on two documentary films that focus on fishery concerns, Kristina is also the director of research for a pharmaceutical research firm in Princeton, New Jersey, where she lives with her two favourite explorers, her children, Grace and Jack.
About the Mary Celestia
On September 6, 1864, the American Civil War blockade runner Mary Celestia struck a reef off Bermuda’s south shore and sank just offshore from the site of the former Sonesta Beach Hotel.
A popular site for scuba divers, the wreck sits 55 feet below the surface with the ships paddle wheels, anchor and bow still very visible above the sand.
The wreck is buoyed under the Bermuda Dive Sites programme, established by the Marine Environment Committee of the Bermuda National Trust in association with the Ministry of Environment, and is protected with a 300 metre no-fishing limitation.
After Hurricane Bill passed 80 miles off Bermuda on August 22, 2009, a post- hurricane survey was conducted by Dr. Philippe Rouja, Bermuda’s Custodian of Historic Wrecks. On that dive, Dr. Rouja recovered an intact bottle of wine from the Mary Celestia, and a rescue marine archaeology project to excavate the sand inside the bow of the Mary Celestia was born.
In January 2011, a second survey following a winter storm revealed even more secrets of the Mary Celestia when five bottles of wine were discovered lodged inside the bow of the wreck, still packed inside a wooden crate and corked‚Äîwith their liquid contents intact after 147 years underwater. The location of the wine and packing cases in the small front bulkhead suggests the stash was private contraband, separate from the Mary Celestia’s general cargo.
As the archeological excavation progressed, clearing the site of four feet of sand, the team uncovered more artifacts including several pairs of shoes and a wooden “last,” a form used by shoemakers to manufacture shoes, a wooden hairbrush and two other bottles, which analysis and research have identified as a nineteenth-century cologne and perfume. Both bottles were intact and sealed with their original contents inside. One of the bottles, clear glass with a narrow neck, was filled with a yellow-green liquid and corked. It was embossed “Murray & Lanman, No. 69 Water Street, New York, FLORIDA WATER.” That firm, founded in 1808, remains in business although now relocated to New Jersey. The original 1808 formula for this citrus cologne was enjoyed in 1864 and can still be appreciated today.
LookBermuda/LookFilms is coproducing a film on the Mary Celestia with South Carolina PBS affiliate SCETV for US Public Broadcasting that will air in 2015. The film will be made available to the island schools via the LookBermuda Educational Media Foundation. For more information please visit www.mary-celestia.com