Underwater shipwrecks hold secrets to life as well as pots of gold

The tragic event of losing a ship at sea is one that has occurred far too often in history. The sad remnants of sea-ravaged ships lying forgotten underwater for hundreds of years not only tell us secrets about the disastrous events themselves but also hold valuable physical clues to past times we know little about, including actual treasure troves of gold and jewels. Not surprisingly then, shipwrecks have long intrigued painters, writers, scientists, filmmakers, historians and even professional treasure hunters alike.

We only need to think of the (arguably) hit film The Titanic, in which Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are immortalised as tragic lovers on a ship bound for the bottom of the Atlantic. The poem The Wreck of the Hesperus by Henry W. Longfellow even inspired a song by The Beatles’ George Harrison, and is a term my mum uses to describe me when I’m looking particularly unkempt. So it seems that shipwrecks have had such an impact on us that they have even infiltrated the English language.

The Wreck by Knud-Andreasson Baade c.1835. Wikipedia Commons.

Shipwrecks also have remarkable stories to tell us about the past. With rapid advances in technology, we now have sophisticated remote-sensing and remotely operated diving equipment, allowing diving archeologists to find and reach much deeper underwater sites, meaning that no site is beyond the reach of our research into the past. We only have to think of the 2003 discovery of the shipwreck of The Santa Maria off the coast of Haiti – one of the ships now thought to have carried Christopher Columbus over the Atlantic to America – and the excavation of the 2,000 year-old Antikythera shipwreck to uncover ancient treasures including the world’s first known computer.

Now, scientists have uncovered other secrets related to the rich and deep ecosystems that shipwrecks support in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, over 2,000 shipwrecks languish on the bottom of the sea spanning over 500 years of maritime history from the time of the 16th century Spanish explorers to the American Civil War and through the World War II era. A team of scientists have dived down to discover exactly what kind of life these ships support and how it has been affected by a huge and devastating oil spill in this area (the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010).

In the first ever study of its kind plunging into deep-sea shipwreck ecosystems, the team discovered that the presence of shipwrecks on the seafloor alters what kind of microorganisms are found there. They also revealed that the chemicals used to clean up the oil spill has changed this microbial community, even after four years, thus having knock-on effects on other animals that depend on them like crabs, fish and coral.

The team also found that the oil spill could degrade not only the surrounding ecosystems but also the ships themselves, as the oil seems to increase metal corrosion on the ships’  surfaces. The researchers plan to use innovative 3D-laser and sonar technology to produce high-resolution images of the vessels to document how the oil spill affects their future state of preservation.

What I found most exciting about this study is that it shows how investigating deep-sea shipwrecks can help us monitor the rich ecosystems they support, as well as helping to preserve the precious historic value of the ships themselves. It could also help scientists studying other aspects of the deep sea – a huge part of our planet that still remains mostly a mystery to us.

One thing I am sure about is that the enigma that lies beneath the surface of our oceans  – the secrets of its dark history and ecological treasures – will continue to intrigue and inspire us for a long time to come.

A video about the research can be found here and was presented at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting in New Orleans, U.S.A. yesterday.

Co-authors of the study:

Jennifer Salerno: George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA;

Brenda Little, Jason Lee, Ricky Ray: Naval Research Laboratory, Stennis Space Center, MS, USA;

Leila Hamdan: George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA.


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