Thousands of feet below the Gulf of Mexico lie four shipwrecks. Where they were going, what they were doing, and whether they were sailing together is unknown. Nautical fans and history buffs wonder: Could they have carried pirates? We may never know, but technology is allowing everyday folks a peek at these underwater wonders.
The wrecks’ deep, out-of-the-way locale makes ordinary exploration impossible. But ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) allow users to learn from these remote historical sites. The maneuverable underwater robots can go where scuba divers cannot, making it possible for armchair researchers to explore the wrecks like the pros.
“With the ROVs we can clearly examine the artifacts in these shipwrecks up close, in thousands of feet of water,” says Mike Celata, of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).
Years ago, scientists discovered several shipwrecks during underwater research and oil and gas exploration. But only recently, BOEM made virtual models of the wrecks using video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and cutting-edge 3-D technology.
Using ROVs, 3-D models, and mosaic maps, BOEM has launched an online Virtual Archaeology Museum. In videos made by ROVs, users “float” along the wrecks, viewing submerged anchors, dishes, compasses, and muskets. Nearby sea anemones, eels, and other aquatic creatures and plants live among the wreckage. The 3-D models and mosaic maps (images made by piecing together multiple smaller images), allow museum “visitors” to view the ships from various vantage points and zoom in to observe objects up close. Helpful labels give further details about each object.
So far, the Virtual Archaeology Museum features five shipwrecks. Three lie close together in the Gulf of Mexico (Monterrey Shipwrecks A, B, and C). The two others are the 15377 Shipwreck, also in the Gulf Mexico, and the Black Ridge Shipwreck in North Carolina.
Virtual researchers have learned much from studying the wrecks. But not everything. For example, they know wooden-hulled, copper-sheathed Monterrey A carried at least five cannons and multiple crates full of muskets. But they don’t know whether it was a military ship, a heavily armed merchant ship, or a pirate ship. They know Monterrey B held animal skins and unidentified whitish blocks. But exactly what was the substance for—candles, varnish, or rubber? Each of the wrecks still holds secrets. Who knows? Maybe an explorer like you could solve the mystery!