Far below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, a drone is scanning the seabed. Hundreds of feet above, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer wait patiently for a glimpse into the deep. Suddenly, something completely unexpected looms into view: the wreck of a forgotten vessel abandoned beneath the waves.
Four days earlier, on May 12, 2019, a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, had set out from Pascagoula in Mississippi. En route to Key West, Florida, their mission was to sail across the Gulf of Mexico, carrying out vital tests and exercises along the way. But they ended up finding something completely unexpected.
Known as a shakedown, this 13-day expedition was designed to prepare equipment and train researchers ahead of a packed schedule of activity throughout 2019. As such, the Okeanos Explorer was not equipped to conduct any rigorous scientific research. However, when drones using sonar picked up something strange on the seafloor, the mission took a very different turn.
To all intents and purposes, the first few days of the mission proceeded as planned. Then, on May 16, the Okeanos Explorer neared the Florida Escarpment, some 160 miles off the coast of the United States. And it was here, close to the edge of the vast undersea cliff, that the team decided to test out their latest remotely operated vehicle, or ROV.
In order to get to grips with the ROV, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer launched what is known as an engineering dive. One of three such missions, it would allow the researchers to calibrate various aspects of the new technology. But when the drone, known as Deep Discoverer reached a depth of 1,640 feet, its sonar detected an unexpected shipwreck resting on the ocean floor.
Caught off-guard and ill-prepared to investigate such a discovery, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer rushed to assemble a team of marine archaeologists. Thankfully, the NOAA has a long history of analyzing and categorizing the ocean and everything within it. In fact, the agency’s history stretches back to the early 19th century, with the formation of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey.
More than six decades later, The Weather Bureau was formed, the first atmospheric science agency in America. And the following year it was joined by the country’s earliest conservation agency, the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries. Eventually in 1970 these three organizations merged to form what is known today as the NOAA.
In the 21st century, the purpose of the NOAA is to develop a better understanding of our environment – and to communicate that knowledge to the public. In some cases, this means observing weather patterns in order to predict storms and long-term climate change. And in others, it involves delving deep into the oceans of our planet.
In order to facilitate its work, the NOAA utilizes pioneering technology and state-of-the-art equipment to gather data across the globe. And in 2004, it added another string to its bow in the form of the Okeanos Explorer, a former navy vessel converted into a research ship.
Originally named the USNS Capable, the vessel was first launched by the U.S. Navy in 1989. But after five years in service, it was transferred to the NOAA. And before long, the 224-foot ship had been equipped with everything that its crew needed to conduct vital research in the oceans of the world.
Four years later in 2008 the vessel launched as a NOAA research ship under the new name Okeanos Explorer. And in the years since it has been traveling the globe, studying some of the least-known reaches of our oceans. With equipment capable of surveying depths of almost 20,000 feet, it has proved an invaluable source of information to those looking to understand the undersea world.
Today, the Okeanos Explorer boasts no fewer than four mapping sonars, each tasked with collecting data from the ocean floor. Meanwhile, ROVs scan beneath the surface, sending information back to the waiting crew. And back on the vessel, a wide array of instruments help researchers to make sense of their findings.
Over the years, the Okeanos Explorer has engaged in many missions, including outreach, mapping and reconnaissance. And in that time, it has traveled from the coast of the United States to the remote Galapagos Islands, covering many destinations in between. Ultimately, the vessel’s supporters hope that it will help to expand our knowledge of the world’s oceans and pave the way for even bigger discoveries.
As the only governmental vessel tasked with such work, the Okeanos Explorer is a vital resource to NOAA and the rest of the world. However, the majority of the magic happens back on land. Using satellite technology, the crew transmits data in real time, allowing researchers all around the world to add their expertise to various missions.
For more than ten years, this has proved a fruitful approach, resulting in a number of groundbreaking missions. For example, in 2010 the Okeanos Explorer traveled to the Sulawesi Sea in Indonesia, a deep body of water which had remained relatively unexplored. And there, it conducted the first deepwater dives to penetrate the depths.
In the unchartered waters of the Sulawesi Sea, the equipment on board Okeanos Explorer revealed some 50 aquatic species previously unknown to science. On top of that, researchers also discovered structures on the seabed that had never been seen before. And with the help of an Indonesian ship, the Baruna Jaya IV, they were able to catalogue the extraordinary biodiversity of this unexplored region.
By 2014 the Okeanos Explorer had mapped more than 386,000 square miles of ocean floor, regularly covering territory that had never been studied before. In fact, the NOAA estimates that almost every single mission has uncovered vital data – and contributed to our understanding of planet Earth.
However, it is not just the biodiversity of our oceans that has been revealed by the work of NOAA and the Okeanos Explorer. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, the vessel was involved in the exploration of three shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico. Thought to date back to the 19th century, they provided a fascinating insight into the maritime history of the United States.
Then in 2016 the Okeanos Explorer helped to uncover another piece of American history. Between the Northern Mariana Islands of Saipan and Tinian, the vessel helped to locate a bomber lost during World War II. And ultimately, this mission brought closure to the families of servicemen who died many years ago.
In fact, the NOAA has an impressive track record when it comes to unraveling some of the ocean’s most tragic secrets. In May 2013 an agency vessel was using sonar to explore the wreck of a freighter in San Francisco Bay. But while the team was scanning beneath the surface, they stumbled across another incredible find.
During the mission, NOAA official James Delgad had tasked the crew with a secondary goal: to search for the lost wreck of the steamer SS City of Chester. Back in 1888 the vessel, which had measured roughly 200 feet in length, had collided with the RMS Oceanic somewhere near the entrance of San Francisco Bay. And just six minutes later, it sank beneath the waves.
Tragically, 16 lives were lost in the sinking, which threatened to ignite racial tensions between the locals and the Chinese crew of the Oceanic. But in the aftermath of the incident, it emerged that many acts of heroism had taken place in rescuing survivors from the sinking City of Chester. Their anger appeased, the people of San Francisco eventually forgot about the wreck lying at the bottom of the bay.
Today, the famous Golden Gate Bridge spans the stretch of ocean where the City of Chester went down. But despite its prominent location, the wreck had remained unexplored for more than 120 years. Now, thanks to NOAA and their sonar technology, the story of the fatal sinking has been uncovered.
Six years after finding the wreck of the City of Chester, NOAA would stumble across another slice of history deep underwater. And this time, it was a drone from the Okeanos Explorer that would make the discovery. But while the crew that discovered the remains of the San Francisco steamer knew what they were looking for, this later revelation came as a total surprise.
Previously, assessment of the dive site at the edge of the Florida Escarpment had given no indication that there might be shipwrecks in the area. But when the Deep Discoverer began scanning the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, it detected a vast object resting on the ocean floor.
Clearly, the team had stumbled across a shipwreck. But what was the story of the mysterious vessel, lost and forgotten beneath the waves? With neither specialists nor equipment on board to analyze the discovery, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer utilized modern technology to learn more about their unexpected find.
Through a series of emails and telephone calls, the crew of the Okeanos Explorer were able to quickly assemble a crack team of marine archaeologists. From various locations across the country, they tuned in to a live stream direct from the ocean floor, adding their valuable expertise to the mission. Meanwhile, the team decided to lengthen the dive, spending an additional three hours surveying the site with drones.
As they navigated around the wreck, the drones captured high-definition footage of the sunken vessel. Then, the images were beamed to a specialist back on land, where they were compiled into a detailed photomosaic. After the dive, researchers would use this information to conduct further analysis on dry land.
However, the team did not have to wait that long to learn more about the wreck. In fact, the experts tuned in to the live stream soon began voicing their thoughts on the find – and the results were surprising. Rather than a modern vessel, they believed, the Deep Discoverer had stumbled upon something much older.
According to the experts, the wreck is all that remains of a wooden ship that was likely built at some point in the mid-19th century. At about 124 feet long, its hull was covered in a layer of copper, designed to provide protection during long sailing trips. Apparently, this became common practice for vessels embarking on deep ocean journeys from the 1830s onwards.
By studying a number of different factors, the experts were able to estimate the date of the vessel’s construction. And as well as the copper-sheathed hull, they also looked at the shape of the bow and stem and analyzed the winch, the remains of which could still be seen. Ultimately, they determined that the ship was likely built in or around 1850.
Of course, this does not mean that the vessel has been at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for all these years. In fact, experts believe that the ship could have been plying the waters for several decades after it had been built. And at the moment, they have found nothing to indicate when the wreck first sank to the ocean floor.
Although the team noted a number of iron and copper artifacts scattered around the site, they were unable to learn more about the sunken vessel. As such, the details of its crew, cargo and nationality remain unknown. However, there was one small discovery which may yet shed some light on the identity of the wreck.
Deep beneath the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the drone cameras picked up something unusual: the number 2109 written in metal along the rudder of the wreck. But what did it mean? Unfortunately, researchers have so far been unable to get to the bottom of the mysterious code, and the origins of the vessel remain unknown.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that the wreck is incomplete. In fact, only the lower part of the vessel remains. In the video, one expert can be heard explaining the fate of the rest of the ship. “What we’re actually looking at here is the bottom of the hull of an ocean-going wooden sailing vessel, the upper portions have been consumed by marine organisms because they weren’t copper sheathed,” he explains.
However, it’s possible that more than marine organisms were at play – and that something else helped turn the wreck into a shadow of its former self. According to the experts, some of the timber had a burned or charred appearance. Furthermore, a number of fasteners across the vessel had been bent out of shape.
To the trained eye, these all suggested one thing: that the vessel may have caught fire, burning for some time before sinking beneath the surface. If true, this could explain why the wreck was so devoid of artifacts. In normal circumstances, explorers might expect to uncover personal possessions, as well as traces of the rigging and decks. However, none of these were uncovered by the Okeanos Explorer team.
In the video, one expert speculates that the vessel may even have been intentionally set on fire. “It almost makes you wonder if this was at the end of its life and it just was easier to burn it. Who knows? I mean there’s all sorts of questions.” Meanwhile, others marvel over the craftsmanship evident even after all these years.
For those behind the discovery, it was a remarkable experience. In the video, one of the team explains, “I’ve been doing this for nine-and-a-half years and I’ve always wanted to find a shipwreck.” Later, another adds, “This is exploration at its finest.” However, the NOAA’s Frank Cantelas later explained that it may be some time before they are able to return to the wreck and learn more.
“As exploration of deep waters is difficult and expensive, we don’t know when there will be another expedition,” Cantelas told Newsweek in 2019.In lieu of further investigation, however, the NOAA plans to release all of the data from the Okeanos Explorer dive to the public. And in doing so, it hopes that another team of researchers might take up the mantle, helping to uncover the secrets of the mysterious wreck.