archeologists vs. wreck divers

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Posted by on September 15, 2005 at 23:10:53:

Massachusetts shipwrecks putting archeologists in race with ocean adventurers

It seemed, at first, a tantalizing discovery about 4 miles off the coast of Marblehead. Grainy sonar images, captured earlier this year by survey crews scouting a route for a gas pipeline, showed what appeared to be a century old wooden schooner, lying nearly intact and upright in a watery grave, about 200 feet below the ocean's surface.

The state's official shipwreck czar, an archeologist by profession and a scuba diver by passion, was intrigued.

''It's getting the beginning of a mystery to solve," said Victor Mastone, director of the state's Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, the agency that has jurisdiction over shipwrecks and other artifacts uncovered in Massachusetts waters.

But Mastone learned last week that his mystery already had been solved.

It turns out that a team of local divers who specialize in exploration of shipwrecks, and who run a charter diving service out of Salem, stumbled upon the ship last summer while searching for other wrecks.

They scooped up several pieces of china, some brass port holes, and other artifacts from the site to help them research and identify the ship. State law bars divers from taking artifacts from newly discovered shipwrecks without a permit. They determined it was the Brenton Reef Lightship, built in 1875 and used as a floating lighthouse for 60 years, then used as a floating restaurant until it sank in 1975 while being towed to Beverly.

The Brenton drama highlights a growing rift between divers and state officials in the race to uncover the ocean's secrets. Armed with increasingly sophisticated sonar, and breathing equipment that makes it possible to explore deeper and stay under longer, divers are increasingly discovering shipwrecks and picking through their remains before state officials even find the sites.

That is fueling an already heated debate about whether newly discovered wrecks should be kept secret from the public, until officials can determine if they should be preserved for archeological or historical purposes, or whether their precise locations should be revealed so others can explore them.

''It's divers out there doing this work" of finding and identifying the ships, said Heather Knowles, 28, cofounder of Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions, Inc., in Salem, whose charter boat team discovered the Brenton Reef Lightship wreck. ''But, in general, the archeological community excludes the divers because we don't have academic credentials."

An estimated 3,000 shipwrecks are scattered off the state's coastline, and roughly 500 of those vessels are believed to have gone down between Nahant and Magnolia. But only one tenth of those are likely to be mostly intact and still significant from an archeological standpoint, Mastone said. Even fewer, perhaps 100, have historic value, he added.

But painstaking research is needed to verify a ship's identity and determine whether officials should protect its potentially valuable contents. The state has released the exact location of just 40 sites where divers are allowed to explore and to take some souvenirs. Mastone said his agency has done some research on roughly another 100 sites, but needs to study them further before making a decision on whether to reveal their locations.

When the Brenton wreck was captured on sonar earlier this year by crews working for Excelerate Energy LLC, the Texas based company proposing a liquefied natural gas docking station off Gloucester, the sonar also revealed four other potential shipwrecks. So Excelerate funded another underwater search, using a remotely operated vehicle to film clearer pictures. These were turned over to Mastone's office.

The film showed that divers already had discovered the Marblehead site where the Brenton sunk: a modern mooring was attached to the wreck and connected to a lobster buoy, marking the location. Mastone tracked down the divers by the lobster license number on the buoy, not realizing that they had already figured out the identity of the wreck. Now, he said, he hopes to meet with them to compare notes, so they may be able to help the state identify the other four potential wrecks.

''It's a good lesson," Mastone said. ''Someone else may know a lot more about the site than I do."

But he also said that teaming up with the local divers may be sensitive because other archeologists often take a dim view of recreational divers who remove artifacts from wrecks.

''I will have colleagues saying, 'Why aren't you taking these people to court?' " Mastone said.

The vast ocean bottom, however, can be a tough place to police.

''There is a notion out there that once you get offshore, it's like the wild West, that nobody is looking," said Daniel Finamore, an archeologist, diver, and the curator of maritime art and history at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. ''People are always looking for a new wreck because the old ones are denuded of interesting things to look at."

The maximum penalty for removing artifacts from shipwrecks in state waters without permission is a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail. However the state has not prosecuted anyone in the 14 years Mastone has been in charge.

''You have to basically catch someone red handed," he said. ''You can't do it by hearsay."

The Brenton saga comes during prime diving season in Massachusetts. Ocean water temperatures 50 feet below the surface finally warm up to around 50 degrees Farenheit in September and October. That's when veteran diver Chris Hugo spends many weekends scouring the depths off Cape Ann, including some of its more popular wrecks whose precise locations have been made public by the state. One of his favorites is the Chester Poling, a tanker that sank off of Gloucester's Eastern Point in 1977, when a rogue wave smashed the vessel in half. The stern is in shallower water and much more accessible.

''The bridge area is gone. That went with the bow section of the ship. But the catwalk that connected the two is festooned with sea anemones. It's like a garden," said Hugo, 44, a member of the MetroWest Dive Club, and a researcher who has provided the state with background on wrecks that were made public.

''Diving is peaceful, it's weightless, you feel like you're flying through space," Hugo said. ''It can be a little frightening at times, depending on what the visibility is like. It's exciting, exhilarating. Everything at once."

Raymond Bates, 52, a Marblehead commercial lobsterman, historian, and longtime diver, said the state may be forced to work with divers if officials want to preserve the wrecks for the public.

''Divers of tomorrow will be armed with metal detectors and sub bottom profiling technology. More and more stuff will be found and it will be harder and harder for [the state] to control these guys," said Bates, author of ''Shipwrecks North of Boston," which tells the tale of 30 wrecks in Salem Bay.

The state's shipwreck czar agrees that great strides could be made in research if archeologists and divers would collaborate more, especially if they shared coveted coordinates that reveal exact locations. Still, Mastone is hesitant. He said divers who lack archeological training may not realize that experts often glean insights about a culture or time period, simply by the position of artifacts found at a site, including shipwrecks. By disturbing pieces of the wreck, even inadvertently, key clues may be lost forever, he said.

''Shipwrecks," Mastone said, ''are the only true time capsules."

1. Brenton Reef Lightship

Wooden lightship

Built: 1875

Sunk: 1975, about 4 miles off the coast of Marblehead

The aging vessel, long retired from use first as a lightship and later as a floating restaurant was being towed from South Boston to Beverly for repairs when it sank.

Dive site conditions: The ship lies upright in about 180 feet of water. Some china can be found in the galley and scattered around the wreck.

Information from Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions.

2 . Chester Poling

Steel coastal tanker

Built: 1934

Sunk: Jan. 10, 1977 in Gloucester, off Eastern Point

A monster wave smashed the tanker in half. Captain Charles Burgess radioed an SOS, hoping to save his six man crew. The ship's cook drowned during the rescue mission.

Dive site conditions: Poling's bow rests upside down in 190 feet of water. The stern sits upright in about 90 feet. Marine life has turned tanker's hull into an artificial reef. A centerline catwalk is festooned with anemones and other hydrozoans.

3. Albert Gallatin

Iron hulled US revenue cutter

Built: 1871

Sunk: Jan. 6, 1892 in Manchester, northwest of Boo Hoo Ledge

Cutter struck Boo Hoo Ledge, started to take on water in pounding seas. Smokestack collapsed, killing ship's carpenter. All other crewmen escaped in lifeboats.

Dive site conditions: Salvage attempts have reduced steamer's hull to scattered pieces over ledge, crevices, and rocks in 10 to 50 feet depths.

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