A deep-sea research team that includes scientists from Duke and N.C. State universities stumbled across a previously unknown shipwreck more than a hundred miles off the coast of North Carolina last Sunday.
The team was using a remotely operated underwater vehicle and the manned submersible Alvin to search for missing research equipment when they found the ship, which archaeologists believe sank roughly around the time of the American Revolution.
Following up on a shadowy shape picked up on SONAR, the three people in the submersible first saw “a big chain” lying on the sea floor. After casting about in the opposite direction, “we turned around and said, ‘let’s see what’s at the other end of it,’” said Bernie Ball, a Duke scientist who was on board.
They followed the chain to a pile of bricks, bottles, jugs, and a navigational instrument, possibly a sextant.
The team left everything in place except for a glass bottle, which they brought to the surface to give to archaeologists, who will use it to date the wreck more precisely.
Wrecks are not uncommon off the coast of North Carolina, which is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, said James Delgado, director of NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program. But this is much farther offshore and much deeper than they are typically found.
That’s partly because the deep ocean is huge and mostly unexplored.
“We have worked this study area for a number of years and never saw any hint of the wreck,” said Cindy Van Dover, a marine scientist at Duke. “The deep sea is really vast, and this is kind of a gentle reminder that we barely have a glimpse of what’s going on down there.”
Van Dover’s team, along with physical oceanographers from N.C. State and marine biologists from the University of Oregon, is at sea studying deep-sea methane seeps, hotspots of biological and chemical activity that dot the sea floor.
The team was collecting samples and looking for a lost mooring, an underwater station that, in this case, held equipment that measures the speed of the current and collects tiny marine larvae. They were unable to find the mooring.
The researchers are keeping the exact location of the wreck private.
According to Delgado, the wreck might be well-preserved because of its location a mile under the surface, where the ocean is very cold, dark, and low in oxygen.
It is also located in the path of the Gulf Stream, which makes sense, he said. In the period after the Revolutionary War, the young country was wholly dependent on overseas trade, and the Gulf Stream acted as an “ocean conveyor belt.”
Delgado and other archaeologists are just beginning to look through the photos and videos that the scientists captured, but he thinks the ship was most likely a trading vessel rather than a warship.
“That could tell us far more because in many ways those hundreds of voyages, thousands of voyages, really wrote the history of America in a very powerful way at the same time we were advancing and expanding west,” he said.
Ball, a molecular biologist, said the explorers did not have time to linger on the wreck.
“We had a whole list of things we had to get sampled, and it costs a lot of money to get down to the bottom,” he said.
But the unexpected find was a thrill.
“It's one of the neatest things I’ve seen that’s not animal related,” he said.