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The Deepest Shipwreck: Discovering an 1810 Merchant Ship

Shipwrecks, Submarines, Subs

I stared at the circular opening above my head with some concern, thinking, “Uh, I can still see daylight through that.” The aperture I was concerned about was the thick hatch in the roof of the Russian Mir I manned submersible we were just about to use to plunge three miles down to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. That’s right – three miles.

Accompanying me inside our vehicle of “inner space” was Dr. Anatoly Sagalevitch, famous for taking film director James Cameron down to the sunken ocean liner Titanic and Jim Sinclair, a marine archeologist well known for his work on the Spanish Galleon Atocha. In addition to my two passengers, I was surrounded by miles of electrical wiring, oxygen bottles, carbon dioxide canisters, scanning sonars, video monitors, and other assorted mechanical devices, all of it needed to keep three humans alive in the crushing pressures of the deep ocean.

Before I pondered my fate further, Anatoly stood up and gripping a small white wheel with his strong hands, locked the hatch into place; no more daylight. We were sealed in. With that, I heard some garbled words in Russian erupt from the radio and felt a gentle bump as a massive crane plucked us from the deck of our ship and lowered us into the sea. Once floating over the side, I heard a few footsteps on top of our 18-ton submersible as we were released from any connection to our support ship, the Akademik Keldysh. Anatoly grabbed the microphone, grumbled some more Russian, and flipped some switches allowing water to flood the Mir’s ballast tanks. We then promptly sank.

On that day in July of 2001, I had spent some 25 years working in the subsea field, mostly as a pilot of Remotely Operated Vehicles, or ROVs as they are commonly known. During my last trip to that particular spot of the ocean, identified as the Blake Basin, I led an expedition to locate and recover the Liberty Bell 7 Mercury spacecraft flown by astronaut Gus Grissom in 1961. While the flight was a success, the explosive hatch on the capsule jettisoned prematurely, allowing the spacecraft to sink and giving me an inviting target to find and raise some 38 years later. But it was what we found while searching for Liberty Bell 7 that was the focus of our renewed efforts as we sank like a stone into the darkness of the abyss: a mysterious sonar target having all of the characteristics of an old wooden sailing ship. What made it even more intriguing was the fact that our location was almost directly on the route the Spanish Galleons used to sail after being loaded up with gold and silver in the new world. Both myself and a small group of supporters hoped that was what we would find after viewing the target firsthand. But for all we knew, it could be one of Bill McCoy’s famous “Rum Runners” sunk during a storm; in other words, a potentially worthless endeavor. For our purposes, we code-named the object “Atlantic Target.”

The Mir submersible I was riding in had been used for everything from filming the Titanic, inspecting the sunken Russian submarine Kursk, and taking wealthy tourists down to the sunken German Battleship Bismarck. Two Mir subs exist, both developed by the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology for scientific research. They are manned submersibles, each of them able to carry one pilot and two passengers to the bottom in waters as deep as 6,000 meters, or roughly 20,000 feet (that capability allows them to reach 98% of the ocean floor). Both vehicles operate from the Keldysh which at 6,500 tons, is the largest oceanographic vessel in the world. On that ship, you can do anything from observe a Russian scientist studying a deep ocean species of fish, watch a movie, or get soundly trounced in a game of volleyball (the Russians are pretty good at it). And if you look very closely at the Keldysh’s smokestack, you can see where the bright red hammer and sickle insignia has been covered in white paint; an example of Communism wiped out in more ways than one.

Before we dove, I shared some of the side scan sonar data with Anatoly, describing the towering sand waves known to be in the area. He was unimpressed. We later had a dive meeting at 8:30 in the morning before we launched the Mirs. Most of the Mir support team huddled in the laboratory, basically a cramped workshop used to keep the subs operating, as Anatoly reviewed our objectives. “Today we dive to try and locate a target…. it is unknown…. but who knows? Maybe a Spanish Galleon…. maybe not. We will find out.” He ordered all of the “divers” to be back in the Mir lab at 9:30 and sent us all off to get ready.

The Mir’s exterior size is deceiving. In reality, most of the vehicle is needed for two purposes: to keep three occupants alive and transport them across the bottom in deep water. The three of us would be crammed into a seven-foot diameter nickel-steel sphere mounted at the sub’s bow. All of the rest of the sub’s length was filled with batteries, ballast tanks, propulsion units, hydraulic pumps, and electrical systems. Generally speaking, diving in such a research submersible is fairly safe; to my knowledge, there has not been a fatality in similar vehicles since 1973. But the reality was that if we somehow got stuck on the bottom and could not be unfouled by our sister sub, we were dead. I knew that there was no way another vehicle, one capable of reaching such depths, could be mobilized in time to rescue us. After a few days, our oxygen and carbon dioxide absorbent would run out, the batteries would die, and we would be nothing more than a lifeless hulk on the seafloor. Eventually we would be found, our bodies removed and the sub cleaned out and refurbished. However, I had faith in the technology created by the losers of the Cold War. We would also be working in a area which like most of the deep ocean, was generally unexplored. In fact, we would be the first people to actually visit the location in person. More humans have been into space than dove to the depths we were about to visit – hopefully, to return as well.

In the days since sailing from Bermuda, I had come to respect the Russians, Anatoly in particular. He and his team were very resourceful. In an age where he saw his whole government collapse, Anatoly found a way to keep his organization running. The man was a burly individual having a balding head and was no doubt idolized by his people. When I first came on board the Keldysh, Anatoly was cordial, but not overly friendly. I judged him as someone with whom you had to earn respect. During our transit from Bermuda to the dive location, we all watched the Discovery Channel film depicting my expedition to recover Liberty Bell 7. After that, Anatoly seemed to accept me as a “comrade” underwater explorer. I suppose he figured that if I could find and recover a tiny Mercury capsule from such deep water I must know what I’m doing.

Preparing for a deep dive is a process, much of it physical, the rest of it mental. The day before you know you’re diving, you don’t eat or drink much, mostly due to the difficulty of relieving bodily fluids and getting rid of solid waste in the sub. It’s not that it cannot be done, just that you want to avoid it. It is an easy process to urinate into a special container during a dive if you have to; but defecating is another matter. Imagine using a toilet in a stall which is also occupied by two other people trying not to watch you; that’s what it would be like.

After our morning briefing, I returned to my cabin and put on the bottoms of a pair of thermal underwear, a tee shirt, thick socks, and a blue nomex jumpsuit supplied by the ship. If anyone had told me ten years earlier that I’d be diving in a Russian research submarine wearing a suit with a patch embroidered with the letters “CCCP,” I would have told them they were nuts. Yet here I was.

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Promptly at 9:30 AM I made my way down to the Mir lab and signed the dive log so a record was made of who was diving in which submarine (in case we didn’t return?). I gave my small bag to the aging lady who later placed it into the appropriate sub. I walked out on deck, climbing a narrow aluminum ladder up the side of Mir I, which was still being prepped by the crew. Once at the top of the sub, a few people nearby started clapping and I gave a small wave while removing my shoes, handing them to a crewman who stuffed them into a small toolbox for our return. There is almost a tradition to it all, the simple act of diving in the Mirs.

Once inside, it was very warm; probably about 90 degrees F with a humidity of 100%. I crawled onto the leftside couch, pulled down my jumpsuit, and stripped the clothing off my chest. I stuffed my small bag towards my feet and waited. Anatoly and Jim soon followed, the hatch was sealed and we were off. I didn’t know Jim Sinclair well at all, but the husky, bearded man was well known in treasure hunting circles and one of the few marine archeologists willing to work with commercial salvors. Jim also took the time to point out two toggle switches on the right side on the forward control panel. If for some reason Anatoly became incapacitated, pushing those two switches up would return us to the surface. Good information.

We sank further still into the abyss. Inside the Mir, it was quiet except for the sounds of our breathing, occasional communications, and humming of the electrical systems. As we passed 1,000 feet we lost all of our ambient light and the cobalt blue of the Bahamas waters turned to a deep black. It also started getting cold as I pulled my clothing back on and slipped on a second pair of socks. There was really nothing to do at that point and I tried relaxing on the thin padding of the observer’s couch.

Two hours after leaving the warm sunlit environment of the surface, we neared the bottom of the Blake Basin. By now, the outside water temperature had crashed to a frigid 36 degrees, we had droplets of water dripping off the sub’s interior, and the pressure on every square inch of our pressure sphere was about twice the weight of the average passenger car – over 7,000 lbs. As our long range sonar started detecting the nearing seafloor, Anatoly flipped some more switches and started pumping water out of our ballast tanks to slow our descent. Crashing into the bottom would be bad.

The seafloor came up to greet us. I saw the side of a slope of mud pass us as we plummeted down. Damn these hills are tall! The bottom muck swallowed our submarine and we finally came to a halt. We were now at a depth of 16,374 feet beneath the surface. I peered out the tiny viewport but could see nothing but a swirl of bottom sediment and the side of a very steep escarpment. Anatoly was now impressed with the bottom terrain as he mumbled, “Hills are very big.” He continued to expel water from the Mir as we slowly started rising off the bottom and headed west in search of our long lost sunken ship. The swift currents in the area had shoved us far to the east of where we wanted to be; strong currents in such deep water were unusual, to say the least. Now we had a column of water above our tiny sub equal to the height of 28 Washington Monuments.

One thing I noticed was the emotional difference between observing the bottom on a video monitor and viewing it firsthand. With a remote vehicle, all you get is a two-dimensional image, one seen while holding a cup of coffee in your hand while sitting in relative comfort in an air conditioned control van. You knew that if anything happened to the vehicle, all you had to do was throw up your hands and go back to bed while the ROV was recovered. In the Mir, I saw with my own eyes the steep edge of a mud wall disappear into to the blackest black you can imagine. I felt as though I was hovering above a bottomless pit of darkness, held up only by the couch I clung to. When the sub’s skids scraped the bottom, I saw the sediment swirl across my viewport and felt my forward motion grind to a halt. I smelled the stale air inside of our sub, felt the ice cold just outside, and heard the throbbing sounds of our electric motors. I felt as though I was part of it all, as opposed to a detached observer. It seemed real as opposed to imagined.

We drove across the bottom, right through my best estimate of the sunken ship’s location. Nothing. Thirty minutes after we hit the water, Mir II had also dove and joined us on the seafloor, even farther to the east. We ordered them to work the area north of the target location while we started zigzagging around the southern area.

As Anatoly flew the Mir he skipped over the crests of the massive sand waves with ease, except for times when he would nick a hill with one of the skids. When that happened, it was like running into a wall of Jell-O as the submarine suddenly lurched to one side and ground to a halt. I was reasonably comfortable in my steel prison except I had to keep pushing myself up the couch. This was because as Anatoly drove forward, the vehicle was pitched up at about 10 degrees causing me to continually slide towards the rear of the pressure sphere. I then used my toes to push myself back up and in the process ended up with feet soaked with condensation. My toes froze. It was also awkward to see out of my viewport as I had to lie on my right side, pressing my ribcage into the hard couch and hold my face against the freezing cold steel of the area surrounding the viewport.

A suspended steel cable, directly across our path! I gestured to Anatoly and without saying a word, he nailed the Mir’s electric throttles to their stops and skated the sub over the potentially deadly obstacle. Communications cables were one excellent way to get stuck on the bottom. Now I remembered. When I was doing research on the Liberty Bell 7 project, I recalled examining an AT&T; cable chart, it showing the location of all of the active and decommissioned communications cables off the coast of Florida. There was one telephone cable near the north of our search area and we had just barely missed getting snagged on it.

After six hours on the bottom we had still found nothing and I was beginning to have serious doubts about whether or not anything was there at all. But I remembered that thirty minutes before we found Liberty Bell 7 I had had similar feelings of failure. It was about then that the underwater telephone crackled to life. “Mir I…. This is Mir II… we have found a wooden shipwreck!” Our tired, cold faces erupted into smiles all around as Anatoly and I started plotting a course to find the other Mir. More details were transmitted as Victor, the pilot of Mir II, said, “We can see the copper sheathing on the hull…. and also a large pile of coins!” That took us by surprise. Could we have indeed found a treasure ship?

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Jim and I conferred. “That’s amazing, isn’t it, finding coins this early?” I remarked.

Jim rolled over to face me replying, “Usually when they find coins so soon it means there are a lot more there.”

But try as we might, we could not find Mir II. We got close enough to hear their propulsion units churning away, but the towering sand dunes kept them hidden from view. One problem was that our navigation system didn’t work very well in such notorious bottom terrain. The sound from our navigational beacons was being blocked by the massive hills.

Frustrated and exhausted, Anatoly finally said, “Battery power is low, I’m sorry but we must surface.” With that, we all resigned ourselves to the inevitable and Anatoly started pumping water out to return to the surface; the whining motor sounding like a tortured animal. We had to leave Mir II and my shipwreck on the bottom for now. As our depleted batteries squirted out a little more juice, I heard the slow whine of the hydraulic motor as it pushed water out against the enormous pressure at depth. I had been told earlier that you really started getting cold on the return to the surface and they were right. I was shivering as I wiggled my body into a thick thermal suit. Even that wasn’t enough as I also covered my hands with woolen gloves, put on a third pair of socks, and covered my head with a watchman’s cap. With nothing else to do except for listen to water being expelled from our submarine, I curled up into a fetal position and drifted off into a semi-conscious state. I also had a pounding headache from the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By then I had been confined inside of the Mir for almost 13 hours.

When I awoke from my partial sleep, Anatoly seemed to glance at me with smiling approval. Did I somehow pass some sort of test because I was relaxed enough to sleep while underwater? Did I prove that I was bold enough to dive three miles down in his submarine? We were nearing the surface and starting to roll around a little in the swells. Now I really had to piss and couldn’t wait to get out of the Mir.

Within minutes, our wallowing submarine was hauled out of the dark seas onto the brightly lit deck of the Keldysh and carefully guided into place. We waited with anticipation as the Mir crew secured us down with cables and finally popped the hatch, it opening with a slight hissing sound. With that, we squeezed our tired bodies through the hatch into a festive atmosphere of sorts, where a glass of champagne was thrust into my hand once my feet were on the deck. People applauded as though it was an accomplishment simply to come back alive. My past Navy jobs were never like this! This was the way to dive. I took a couple of sips and quickly made my way to my cabin where I took a well deserved leak. It had been a 16 hour dive. It was then that I discovered a massive bruise all along my right side – no doubt a result of my squirming to see out the Mir’s viewport.

Mir II was soon recovered as we all foraged though their recovery basket while inspecting the few artifacts they grabbed from the wreck. Our “treasure” so far consisted of a few darkened silver coins, dated from the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s and a couple of hand blown bottles. But there were apparently many more artifacts to recover, such as the remainder of the coins, stacks of plates, and who knows what else. While it certainly didn’t sound like a Spanish ship, I felt good about several things. First of all, Mir II had found the wrecksite only 250 meters from where I said it would be which is pretty good, considering all of the inaccuracies involved in figuring our the location of a sonar target in such deep water. This is because when we were searching for Liberty Bell 7, we had no way to tell the exact location of the towed sonar relative to our surface support ship. In such underwater missions, the side-scan sonar is towed behind the ship on a long steel armored tow cable and in deep water that can be quite a ways. During these operations, the location of the side scan sonar is calculated using the length of tow cable deployed behind the ship, the ship’s speed, the corresponding water depth, and distance of the target to the left or right of the path of the support ship. It’s an educated guess, but a guess nonetheless. Finally, even though we had not found the rich Spanish Galleon everyone had hoped for, we had found a shipwreck, in fact the deepest wooden wreck ever discovered. Now we had to get back to the bottom to fully document the site and see what was really down there.

Once more we tossed Mir I into the seas allowing the grip of water pressure to attack our sub. This time my two fellow submariners were Victor Nischeta, reported to be the best Mir pilot on the Keldysh, and Mike McDowell, a likable Australian holding the long term charter to the research ship. It was Mike’s company, Deep Ocean Expeditions, that routinely took well-heeled “adventurers” to the bottom to explore the likes of the Titanic and Bismarck. From what I knew, the outgoing McDowell had pretty much done it all, from expeditions to Antarctica, to diving on the Rainbow thermal vents near the Azores, and exploring famous shipwrecks. Victor was a somewhat quiet man, not ever saying a whole lot. However, he was obviously a very talented individual: not only was he a superb submarine pilot, he also showed a flair for editing the video tape churned out during the numerous Keldysh operations.

Diving with Victor was akin to being in study hall with a substitute teacher. Not that Anatoly was overbearing at all, but with Victor driving it was like playtime with the boss on vacation. Unlike the first dive, this time I was more prepared. I had extra clothing as well as a bottle of Advil to ward off the possible Carbon Dioxide migraine. We huddled in the cold.

During the first one and a half miles of our descent, we soothed ourselves with the soothing Celtic music of Loreena McKennitt. Once past the half-way point though, it was time for action with the hard-edged rock of Vertical Horizon. We nailed the bottom this time very close to the target and in only twenty minutes, the ghostly shape of our shipwreck loomed out of the darkness.

From bow to stern, what was left of the ship was about 70 to 80 feet long, it looking like some sort of massive undersea animal that had been opened up, exposing its ribs. The copper sheathing holding what was left of the timbers surrounded the hull, its surface green with corrosion. Rotting timbers were strewn around the area, many of them anchored to the bottom amidst small rivers of rust. What looked like the remnants of a couple of books gently flapped in the currents, the documents appearing as flowers of water-logged pulp. A dozen or so ceramic plates remained stacked on the deck near the ship’s stern, never to be used. After documenting the location of all of the artifacts, Victor parked the Mir right at the stern facing inboard of the wreckage. We started working on the pile of coins, it looking more like a heap of discarded trash.

Amidst the clicking sound of hydraulic valves, Victor whipped out the Mir’s starboard manipulator like a Russian gunslinger, collecting hundreds of silver coins with a home-made aluminum scoop. They showered into one of our recovery baskets as he positioned the arm to recover more valuables. It was then that we all saw the gold box.

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“What’s that there?” I asked, with my face glued to the viewport.

“It almost looks like a gold bar…. or some kind of box,” Mike replied.

Whatever it was tumbled into the basket on top of the growing pile of Spanish Coins of the Realm. Victor continued working as we were joined by Mir II, them making their presence known by churning up a large cloud of mud. After hovering above us like some sort of spacecraft, they crawled up the hill leaving a trail of swirling sand. They would eventually find sections of the ship’s mast, complete with intact canvas sail cloth.

It was then that I saw it: a small triangular shape propped up against a soggy wooden timber.

“Look at that!” Is that a sextant?” I said.

“I think the guys in Mir II mentioned that they thought they saw one during the last dive,” Mike replied.

With that, and after finishing up with our now depleted pile of coins, Victor repositioned the submarine and ever so carefully, extracted the 200 year old wooden navigational instrument from the ship’s silt-covered deck. I wondered whose hands had used it last.

We also heard that Mir II had earlier seen a boot buried underneath a shattered glass demijohn in the same area. Probing with the tip of the manipulator, we managed to dig the black leather object from its grave. A bright red lobster danced around the item as we slowly maneuvered it onto the nearly full basket. While dimensions are hard to estimate underwater, the boot appeared to be a fairly small size, but of sufficient length to extend about halfway up a mans’ calf.

It was then that the whole experience got personal. When I saw the boot, I wondered, “Whose ship did we find?” This was the boot of some unlucky man who probably died 200 years ago when the ship we were looking at sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Did the man survive? Did any of his crew make it off the ship alive? Or did everyone perish in the dark seas waiting for their graves to be somehow discovered? Was there a descendent living somewhere who would appreciate knowing how their ancestor died?

By now our small cargo hold was getting full; we easily had several hundred coins, the boot, sextant, as well as numerous ceramic plates and glass artifacts. We dug through the top of a couple more wooden boxes but could only glimpse some unidentifiable material that looked as though it had decomposed into carbonized muck. Batteries were running low and it was time to head back to our home on the surface, three miles straight up.

During our boring trip to the surface, I still found it hard to comprehend the age of what we had just seen. When the ship sank, there had yet to be a Civil War and the United States had existed as an independent country for less than 50 years. For a comparison, it would be like investigating a ship in the year 2192 that had been sunk in 2001. How different would the world be in almost 200 years?

In the Keldysh’s sonar laboratory, now functioning as a archeological processing facility, we started examining our loot. Jim Sinclair carefully pried open the lid of the an ornate gold box, all of us anticipating what we might find inside. While it was small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, it was very heavy. I saw… newsprint?

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Jim dug out a small magnifying glass, replying, “Newspaper.”

A newspaper that had survived two hundred years underwater? Impossible! Yet there it was. However, it was also only the day before that we had also been shocked to recover an intact sheet of silk fabric, stenciled with the words, “Not to be sold.” This was not a small fragment, but a silk fabric sample about a meter square. I could now make out some lettering on the paper, “Spanish-Town, February 24, 1809,” with what looked like a classified advertisement saying, “Adam, a Mundingo, 5 feet 9 ½. inches tall, right shoulder, has an ulcer on his left side, Mrs. Johnson, Kingston, committed by William Barnes, Esq.” A sales ad for a slave no doubt.

Jim’s dental pick carefully opened up the newspaper folds, all the while keeping everything under the water and out of the air. Gold! Carefully stored inside of the folded up newspaper were 13 glimmering gold coins. The Captain’s private stash?

“Looks like we’ve got some Portuguese Escudos,” Jim remarked. We stacked up the gold coins, all of them dated in the late 18th Century and never to be spent by the owner. It was then that my attention was drawn back to the black leather boot. I pulled it out of the small tank of water and removing my own shoe, compared the lengths. It looked like about a size nine. The Captain was obviously not a big man.

Having accomplished our objective, the Keldysh steamed around the area during the rest of the last night recovering several navigational beacons that had been earlier deployed on the bottom. With that done, we headed north and back to Bermuda with all of us trying to figure out how to get our recovered items back to the United States. How do you tell customs that the silver and gold coins you’re taking home just came from an unidentified and abandoned sailing ship sunk in three miles of water? That’s what lawyers are for.

In the end, we recovered over 1,300 Spanish silver coins, about half of them identified as “Eight Reals,” or later versions of the well known Pieces of Eight. We also collected two flintlock pistols (one complete with a brass barrel), a fragile hourglass, two wooden navigational instruments, numerous hand-blown glass bottles, a ballast stone, a handle for a wood saw, a fragment of a coin box with the name “ROXBURY” stenciled on it, and many other well preserved artifacts. Even if we sold the lot at auction, they would never cover the cost of the expedition.

We still don’t know the identity of the ship we found and that haunts me. Was the vessel simply taken by a storm? Was there a small lifeboat that the Captain and crew managed to use to save their lives? Or did everyone drown as the ship went down? Even though we did not find the rich Spanish Galleon everyone was hoping for, we did locate and partially salvage a two hundred year old wooden shipwreck in waters three miles deep; something never done before.

Another thing we did was to prove once again that marine archeology can successfully coexist with commercial salvage operations. The “academics” who portray commercial salvors as amateurs who destroy underwater archeological sites weren’t on the Keldysh or in the two Mirs to see first hand how careful we were to document the location and orientation of all of our artifacts before disturbing the site. In addition, all of our recovery work was guided by standard archeological practices as much as possible, taking into account the nature of the deepwater environment we were working in and the technology involved; as Jim Sinclair put it so clearly during an earlier briefing, this was “cutting edge” underwater work.

Rather than selling off the collection at the first opportunity, all of the artifacts recovered from the Atlantic Target are being stabilized and cleaned for future study at the South Florida Museum of Natural History; something that would have been impossible without the support of commercial sponsors.

I’m also certain that this ship is only one of thousands sunk in deep water under similar circumstances, many of them having the valuable cargoes on board that can justify the tremendous expense of finding, documenting, and excavating them. Not only that, they’re also loaded with the artifacts that can help us better understand the past. They’re out there. I know it.