Ever wonder what first inspired me to write about shipwrecks and the deep ocean? Below is an article I wrote about my dive into the heart of the Bermuda Triangle and the shipwreck we found three miles beneath the surface.
It is summer here in the wide Atlantic Ocean south of Bermuda. Summer so hot that the tar between the teak deck planks is expanding and bubbling out, and yet I’ve packed a snowsuit. That’s because I’m about to visit the deepest wooden shipwreck ever discovered. And at 16,700 feet below the surface, it gets quite chilly.
In 1999, deep sea explorer Curt Newport convinced Discovery Channel to help him find and recovery the lost Gus Grissom space capsule, “Liberty Bell 7”. Part of that arrangement allowed him use of all the sidescan sonar data, the virtual map of the seabed he created during search operations. After all, who knew what else he would find?
After the successful recovery of the capsule, one mysterious target stuck with him. It wasn’t like the spacecraft, a target that gave a clean Christmas-tree sonar return from its metal hull. This was something different. Curt took the image to experts, who examined it more closely. The target was wooden, they concluded. And, more intriguingly, it was very old.
The waters south of Bermuda had been used for centuries as an oceanic highway. Galleons, small trading vessels, ships of war—every type of ship had plied those waters since the earliest days of discovery. In fact, this particular target lay right in the heart of the Bermuda Triangle, the fabled area of ocean where ships had been disappearing for centuries.
The mystery of the wreck was too much for Curt to ignore. He enlisted the aide Guy Zajonc, who in turn enlisted Mike McDowell, a deep-water project coordinator best known for running “look-but-don’t-touch” expeditions to the Titanic. Together the two chartered the Akademic Mistilav Keyldysh, the flagship of the Russian Academy of Science.
Running the program from the Russian side was Dr. Anatoli Sagelevich, the distinguished Russian scientist largely responsible for the creation of these incredible machines. Jim Sinclair, an archaeologist and veteran of many deep-water projects and Don Walsh, the former Navy sub pilot who in 1960 set the still-standing manned depth record of nearly 30,000 feet in the deep-diving Trieste submersible also accompanied the expedition.
The vessel had two distinct characteristics—not only is it the largest research vessel in the world, it also carries the Mir system: twin 3-man submersibles capable of reaching depths of up to 20,000 feet. This put 97% of the world’s ocean floors within their reach. The two subs are capable of a great deal of investigation and careful excavation without many of the usual problems associated with subs of its class. First and foremost, the Mir submersibles do not employ a drop-weight system. Other subs will be loaded with a great deal of heavy nickel-shot weight, like a skin diver holding onto a stone as he descends. Once they reach their desired depth they release some of the weight. Although a cheap and efficient system, this method of achieving neutral buoyancy at depth leaves large deposits of scrap metal and rocks on a very sensitive wreck site. When submersibles employing this system wish to ascend, they repeat this, dropping more metal on the ocean floor. Although this technique is not a danger from a pollution standpoint, it risks damaging the archaeological value of a worksite with litter.
Instead of this, the Mir submersibles use pumped ballast, much like navy submarines. To descend, the vehicles flood their ballast tanks and pump them back out to ascend. Although they have the capability to ‘land’ on the bottom, the preferred technique is to set the buoyancy slightly to the positive and use minimal thruster power to keep the subs on the bottom. This prevents having to thrust down to move, which kicks up dirt and silt and obscures the worksite. The Mir submersibles are also ideal camera platforms. Since there are two vehicles operating, one sub can illuminate an area with it’s powerful onboard lights while the other sub employs a video camera to capture the site in high-definition.
The manipulator arms are ideal for excavation. Due to the composition of most areas of the deep ocean, sedimentation is minimal or practically non-existent. This means that the wreck impacts on the hardpan beneath a very thin layer of sand and sediment, making it is very rare for any part of the wreck to be buried. Freed from any task of actually digging, the manipulators are equipped with not only the standard ‘grabber’ function, but also small 2-way ‘limpet’ suction cups, capable of blowing a small stream of water out to clear away sediment or to suck, creating a seal around whatever object is being recovered into numbered onboard baskets. This limpet system is sensitive enough to gently brush away a thin layer of sand from a centuries-old teacup, and then gently retrieve it without fear of breakage or damage.
Many redundant safety features are in place in case the vehicle ever became hung up on anything or the ballast pumps failed. First, if a total loss of power is experienced, electromagnetic locks holding drop weights automatically release, massively increasing the buoyancy of the submersible and allowing it to rise to the surface. The manipulator arms can also be manually detached, for the same effect. Even the batteries held in the belly of the subs can be released to increase buoyancy. If all of these measures fail, there is one last failsafe system—a titanium eyelet on top of the submersible. The other submersible, after recharging, can bring down a cable and attach it through this eyelet, allowing the submersible can be retrieved by cable and winch.
Although a daunting proposition, the three occupants of a stranded MIR submersible could survive for up to a week, at which point the onboard oxygen supply would be depleted. Water and other emergency supplies are kept onboard just in case of such unlikely events. It would be a very uncomfortable week, suffice to say, but if all went well the incident would be survivable. Luckily, this has never happened to the Mir submersible. Although the Russian submarine and submersible programs have been blighted in recent years by terrible and largely preventable accidents, the Russian Academy of Science has no such mark on their sterling record of safety.
The Keyldysh was very quiet during the first dive to the unknown target. Some of those aboard, including myself, had family members in the submersibles, making it difficult to be talkative. News came back slowly from the hydrophone, which many of us huddled around patiently. After hours of searching on the bottom, they had come across the target. It was, indeed, a ship. Not a galleon, as they perhaps hoped, but a medium-sized coastal merchant vessel, loaded with cargo. Relief washed over all of us—the concept had been proven. We could find a wooden shipwreck of a depth of nearly three miles and actually see it with human eyes. This target now had the honor of being the deepest wooden shipwreck ever discovered. Twelve hours later, the two subs hit surface. Night recoveries are an awesome sight, especially in calm seas. The submersibles turn on their onboard lighting systems shortly before breaking surface, illuminating a small patch of ocean lighter and lighter as they ascend. They surface silently, bobbing like a cork, waves washing over the tops of their beetle-like bright orange flood hulls. Once the winch is engaged, bringing them on deck, letting their tired but happy looking occupants emerge after twelve or more hours sealed in a 6-foot diameter steel sphere.
My father, a project coordinator, was one of those on the first dive. This was not his first experience aboard the Mir submersibles; he had previously visited the Titanic, the I-52 (a sunken Japanese submarine in 17,200 feet of water) and was topside during the first manned dives on the German battleship Bismarck. His compensation for his work the project was two slots to dive in the submarines to see the wreck, an experience that he valued tremendously. It was an experience he was passionate about sharing with me. Although the idea of spending half a day or longer in the space no larger than a closet with two other people and then going down two and a half miles beneath the surface was a daunting prospect, there was no way that I could say no.
The idea was tremendously exciting to me. It took some convincing to Dr. Sagelevich to allow me to take the dive—at the age of 19, I would be the youngest person to ever reach that depth. Initially, the doctor was very much against the idea. “No dive,” he said, putting his fist down. He had not been asked proper permission and this was no kiddie ride. After some cajoling, he agreed to interview me, although he was still very much against the idea. Arms crossed, he invited me into the conference room and asked that I explain myself.
I told him how passionate I was about history. I told him how I read anything I could get my hands on about anything nautical. I explained how I had become scuba certified, that I was not the type to panic and most of all, that I would not become claustrophobic in the many hours in the small craft.
I must have touched his heart. His previous antipathy to the idea disappeared, and he began to tell me about his history with the submersibles, and how passionate he was about diving and exploring the ocean. It was time, he decided, to allow the next generation a chance to see what he had seen. I was in.
After a somewhat restless night I was ready for my dive. I donned my soviet-era flame-retardant jumpsuit and joined the crowd at the launch deck. After handing off my sneakers and climbing the ladder up to the top of the submersible, I carefully climbed down the hatch, making sure not to touch the sides, which were specially coated with lubricant to create an effective seal. The last thing I wanted to do was anything that would compromise that.
My two companions for the voyage were Dave Concannon, an attorney from Boston who had worked on the legal aspects of the project and the sub pilot Viktor, a recruit from the Soviet Air Force. He had previously flown MIG fighter planes, a qualification required to join the elite ranks of the Mir pilot program. A small, quiet man with an easygoing personality and thick glasses, he has logged thousands of hours beneath the surface on projects encompassing everything from shipwrecks to hydrothermal vents to sunken nuclear submarines. Out of the three pilots on rotation, he spoke the least amount of English. He mostly just pointed to different things and said the one phrase he knew with confidence—“No problem.”
Dave Concannon and I had to lie facedown on benches on either side of Viktor, who sat in the middle with the controls. Graciously, Dave had given me the slightly larger bench, not being 6’2 like myself. Suffice to say, it was a tight fit for both of us. Viktor didn’t seem to mind, but we were reminded he’d done this before.
The daylight changed when the top hatch was sealed. The nickel-steel hull of the vessel blocked out all noise from the busy deck. Even the machinery of the hoisting crane, normally deafening, completely disappeared. I looked out of my small four-inch observational porthole.
A few minutes later, the sub jolted as the crane hoisted it up and into the water. Operations on the surface like this were jarring, as the sub swung around on the crane like a weight on a pendulum. I held tightly onto my bench to avoid rolling onto the other two occupants of the sub. Within moments, we were dropped in water as support personnel deftly detached us from the crane. We were free to begin our decent.
As the sub descends at only about one knot just reaching the bottom would take nearly three hours. The intention of this slow and deliberate decent was to flood the ballast tanks just enough to have slight negative buoyancy, not enough to plunge down to the bottom. Besides, the less ballast is pumped on, the less has to be pumped back out in order to ascend. The light from the sun slowly disappeared as we began our decent, completely disappearing by about 400 feet. Staring out the porthole, all I could see was the inkiest black imaginable. The sub started to cool as well, with beads of water collecting on the interior of the hull as sweltering heat of the Bermuda summer above us faded.
Time passed slowly on the way down to the bottom. Dave, with a mischievous look on his face, dug into his backpack and produced a book, “The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Travel Edition”, essentially an instructional book about the worst possible things that could happen to a human being and how to survive them. He told me to read the introduction.
I did, it was some awful story about getting detached retinas and a collapsed lung on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and then having to take the smoking section of a 747 from Germany to New York before getting any sort of medical attention.
“That sounded pretty awful”, I said and tried to hand it back to him.
“Look who wrote it,” he said.
It said “Dave Concannon”. Great, I thought. I’m on this dive with a disaster-magnet. He started telling me about his other horrible incidents and near misses, which were, suffice to say, numerous.
Then the bottom began to come into view. At first, we couldn’t even tell that was what we were looking at. It came from the dark slowly, becoming more and more visible as we approached it with our powerful onboard lights. Then, sharply, it came into view. The ocean floor looked totally alien. It seemed almost like a series of rolling hills of shifting sand over hardpan. Sharp gullies and hills had been cut and molded by the soft current running through the area. Everything was a gentle yellow color that faded to black the further it was away from our lights. We then began our search pattern. The drop over the two and a half hours had significantly shifted our position, forcing us to re-find the wreck. Viktor set the autopilot to run lines as he consulted his sonar data and notes from the previous trips.
It began to get very cold inside of the sub. Even at this latitude, the ocean temperature at this depth was only a few degrees above freezing. A few milky-white fish languished around, attracted by our lights. I observed a jellyfish gently floating by, completely transparent except for glowing purple organs. The ocean floor passed beneath us, featureless, like a desert.
My attention was sharply directed away from the porthole by a loud buzzing sound. Viktor did not seem to notice it. I checked over the instrumentation panel above us. As the subs were built in Finland, all of the labels were in English. I located the source of the noise, a blinking warning light. A blinking warning light labeled “Leakage”.
I had to take a minute to mull that over. Viktor, who had hundreds upon hundreds of hours as a pilot, did not seem to be perturbed, not even enough to look up from his observation porthole. Could he be deaf? I supposed if it was bad enough of a problem, at this depth I would be dead already.
Finally, I nudged Viktor, and pointed at the offending light.
“No problem,” said Viktor, as if that solved the matter. He reached up and flipped the instrument off.
After thinking about it for a minute, I realized that just as a glass of ice-water on a hot day develops condensation on the outside of the glass, the submarine was condensing the moisture in the air as the temperature dropped.
An hour later, we seemed to be no closer to finding the missing wreck. The other Mir submersible was searching in neighboring grid. It was race to see who would re-find the wreck first.
I stared out my porthole in deep concentration. Anything that passed by the ocean floor could be a clue to the location of the wreck. Then something strange happened—the inky blackness that was outside almost seemed to get a shade lighter. And then a shade lighter again.
What are we looking at? I thought. Victor had set the course and depth and was going through his notes; he hadn’t noticed this anomaly yet. I looked out again, and the water continued to shift up in color tone. Suddenly, it came into sharp focus—we were headed straight the base of an undersea cliff. I grabbed Viktor and pointed to the incoming obstacle. He instantly pulled back on the thrusters, putting us into full reverse. It was too late. Everything shifted forwards as we hit. I braced myself as the entire sub twisted sharply forwards. The impact threw up blinding amount of sediment, obscuring any view of the outside. For a moment, we just sat—and waited.
Slowly, the sediment fell away from the portholes. Other than covering the entire front of the sub in mud, we seemed no worse for the wear, and resumed our search. I couldn’t tell if it was a potentially fatal accident that we just had or if it was a regular event. Dave Concannon looked somewhat shaken, but Vikor, as always, remained completely unstirred.
A short time later, we had come over a small rise on a hill, and there the wreck was—almost completely intact and sitting upright on a small undersea hill. The coppered bow came into view first, jutting sharply from the floor of the ocean. Most of the timbers above the waterline had been eaten away, but the coppering of the hull had kept much of the ribbing and keel intact. A small stump still stuck up midships, the remains of the mainmast. The ship’s main cargo, rum bottle and coconuts, took up most of the fore area of the ship. Nearly all of the bottles remained intact, and the coconuts looked perfectly preserved. The scene as a whole was instantly recognizable as a ship. Evenly spaced ribs poked up from the seafloor, and the cargo was still contained within the decayed hull of the wreck.
The stern was even more intriguing. Plates, instruments, and even coins were spread out on the ocean floor. It looked almost like a picnic—the plates were still stacked; they had obviously been placed in some sort of box or container that had long since disintegrated. Our sub signaled to the other sub that we had found it, and the shortly joined us. We gained a few feet of altitude to move into a support role for the sub—filming and lighting the scene as the other sub carefully began work excavating.
Each artifact was carefully selected, filmed, photographed and moved to a basket for safe transportation to the surface, where it was then to enter the custody of the staff archaeologist. The hours passed quickly engaged in this work. The closer we looked at the scene beneath us, the more we could notice—a telescope, sextants, more bottles, fragile small personal artifacts—all of these objects revealed themselves with time and patience.
After eight and a half hours of work, it was time to go. We, in our exuberance, had run down our onboard batteries to nearly nothing. The ballast system on the sub did not have enough power to pump out water against the crushing pressure of the water outside, so our ascent was slower than usual.
The first couple of hours I passed the time by chatting with Dave or listening to some favorite CD’s that I had brought with me. Viktor, pleased with another mission gone well, had turned up the oxygen supply slightly, putting us all in a good mood despite the clamminess and chill of the vessel. I found myself relaxing on the little bench I had called home for the past twelve hours. Flipping over on my back and pulling my knees to my chest, I fit barely enough into my bench to drift off to sleep, still half in my snowsuit.
I didn’t wake until we hit surface. Suddenly, my eyes flew open and I was staring at the bright orange ceiling of the submersible, still curled up in the same position I had gone to sleep as everything bobbed and wobbled like a cork. It took a few seconds for me to remember where I was and what I was doing, but I regained my faculties quickly enough to avoid what is technically termed as ‘flipping out’.
Once winched in and tied down to the deck, we were let out. Tired but smiling, I descended down the ladder and onto deck, where someone handed me a glass of good Champagne, another first for me. I don’t even remember going to sleep, just that I woke up the next morning in my cabin with my coveralls on the floor next to me.
The next day, it was my job to help the archaeologist with cataloging all of the artifacts. One of the artifacts stood out from all the rest; a small gold box. We carefully opened it and found seven gold coins on the inside carefully wrapped in newspaper. The newspaper was removed and unfolded. It was from Jamaica, dated 1809 and was the classified section of the local newspaper, detailing property auctions and slave prices. The master of the vessel had apparently read this and used it to cushion his few most valuable coins to prevent them from rubbing on each other and loosing value.
The steam home was a happy one. We had found what we were looking for and successfully excavated the deepest wooden shipwreck ever discovered, deep within the heart of the Bermuda Triangle.