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All Hands on Deck

Inviting the world to explore a shipwreck deep in the Gulf of Mexico

March/April 2014

Hercules Monterrey Shipwrecks


At the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, far enough from both shore and surface that the water no longer carries the silt of the Mississippi, the wreck of a ship rests at a slight angle. The boat’s structure has collapsed and artifacts litter the sandy seafloor—ceramics, demijohns, old medicine bottles, and more. Copper nails and bronze spikes stand in lines where the planks they once held together have partially rotted away. Crouching in the shadow of a toppled, heavily concreted old stove, a long-legged black crab eyes an odd interloper with suspicion. At 4,300 feet below the surface, no human—archaeologist or otherwise—should be bothering it. But, with the help of a remotely operated submersible named HerculesHerc for short—the crab is enduring a moment of online celebrity. “Folks at shoreside would like to get a measurement on that crab,” a voice crackles over the live video feed. “And let’s take a look at those cannons.”


From where Herc hovers, just above the ocean floor, cables stretch up through thousands of feet of murky water to a state-of-the-art research vessel called Nautilus. There, in a room illuminated only by video screens, James Delgado, underwater archaeologist and director of Maritime Heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Brendan Phillips, one of Herc’s pilots, guide the exploration of the eighteenth- or nineteenth-century wreck they call Monterrey A. From Nautilus, the video feed from Herc is sent by satellite to a building on the campus of the University of Rhode Island. It also goes to various other “command centers,” where groups of scientists gather to communicate directly with an archaeologist on watch duty and to help guide the exploration. The feed is also being streamed live over the Internet, so thousands more people across the world can write in with questions or just have a moment with this big crab and the shipwreck it lives on.


“What’s giving us a sense of the nineteenth century are the anchors, cannons, some of the bottles, and the navigational instruments,” says Delgado on the video feed. “And if the ship had been abandoned, the captain would have grabbed the instruments to navigate the small boat away. This suggests these guys did not make it.”


Monterrey Shipwrecks OctantThe study of the Monterrey A has been a landmark project, bringing together archaeologists from around the country in a collaboration facilitated by telepresence—a technology similar to videoconferencing. Except, in this case, the technology is connecting a robot thousands of feet underwater, a ship bobbing 170 miles out to sea, and rooms full of experts on land. The excavation, conducted over seven days in July 2013, was inclusive and public, as anyone with a computer could ride shotgun with Herc and observe the successes and challenges of deepwater archaeology. And, through the wreck, online viewers could explore a time when the Gulf of Mexico was the epicenter of shifting empires—plied with merchant, naval, and privateer ships on missions of commerce, war, and thievery. 






Anatomy of a Deep Wreck
Update from 716 Fathoms