Mystery at sea: Shipwreck off Galveston probed in satellite salvage adventure

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 24, 2013 at 8:11 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 24 at 8:19 AM

GALVESTON, Texas — A shipwreck undetected in the briny deep of the Gulf of Mexico for two centuries has been discovered off the coast of Texas, where archeologists using robotic submarines have launched a high-tech salvage operation.

Inside a control room on the campus of Texas A&M Galveston, a team of nautical archeologists and biologists are coordinating the exploration of the wreckage discovered by a Shell Oil survey crew about 150 miles off the coast. Satellite video and audio signals keep them in communication with the crew staffing a vessel stationed above the debris field, which sits about 3000 feet below the surface of the water.

Images beamed back from the floor of the gulf show muskets, cannon, clothing, plates and platters that went down with the ship. One especially striking artifact retrieved by the robotic arms: A sealed bottle filled with bright yellow ginger, which was used as a treatment for seasickness.

“We have a lead plate,” said Tom Oertling, a nautical archeologist with Texas A&M Galveston. “And sitting on top of the lead plate is the galley stove, which has fallen back over on its back. The lead plate, we think, was to protect the ship from embers that fell out of the stove.”

The discovery has brought a team of scientists and explorers together for an expedition broadcast live to an audience watching on theNautilus Live website. Texas A&M Galveston, renowned for its oceanographic expertise, is working with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration using a vessel borrowed from Bob Ballard, the famed underwater explorer who found the wreckage of the Titanic.

With the discovery comes a mystery: Where did the doomed vessel come from and how did it she and her crew go down in the gulf?

The artifacts apparently date from the early 1800s, a time when Galveston infamously became the operations base for the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. Some of the debris apparently came from Spain and Mexico, but the guns appear to be British.

Sprawled across a conference table in the control room is a large drawing of the debris field showing a rough outline of the ship. Anything found at the site is marked on the drawing, which brings a sense of organization to the stuff scattered around the floor of the gulf.

“It’s really a mystery being put together,” said Dr.William Kiene, associate science coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries, who compared the salvage operation to “a CSI adventure.”

Beyond the archeological treasures, the shipwreck is also a biological phenomenon that’s attracted its own colonies of sea life. Everything from crabs to colorful anemones have made homes around the wreckage.

“Shipwrecks actually create life,” said Steve Gittings, the science coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program. “They come back to life after whatever goes down with them goes down. So this ship has 200 years of life on it.”

What’s especially remarkable to the experts involved is their unique ability to stay on land and actively participate in a salvage operation happening at sea. Satellite links allow them to watch the underwater robot vehicles pluck away at the artifacts, pulling them out of the debris and placing them in boxes that carry them to the surface. By radio, they can relay instructions to the ship’s crew controlling the salvage robot.

“This is an amazing opportunity for the scientist to stay at home,” Oertling said. “So we don’t have to go there. We can go home at night and have dinner and sleep in our own beds, which is great. But it’s as though we are right there.”

University officials hope this operation sets a precedent that will make the Galveston campus a base for future remote salvage operations.

“Instead of having ten or twenty researchers out on a ship, you can have 100 or 200 or a couple of thousand all over the world,” said Gilbert Rowe, regents professor at Texas A&M Galveston. “That’s what makes this a really unique thing.”

The ship bearing the artifacts retrieved from the site is expected to arrive in Galveston on Thursday. Among the tantalizing items retrieved from the site: A leather-bound book that somehow survived for two centuries on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The nautical archeologists working on this salvage operation hope it will offer clues to solving the mystery behind the shipwreck.

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