unknown ship was found at the Mica site. Will it's story ever be
Oil and gas arent the only treasures oil companies
discover in the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the years a plethora of shipwrecks have been uncovered there
as a result of oil and gas activities -- and as companies have increasingly
moved into deeper waters some extraordinary wrecks have been found
lying thousands of feet down.
All the ships have a fascinating story to tell, but in one case
a wreck has important historical significance for the United States.
"The 1966 National Historic Preservation Act requires every federal
agency to consider the affect of any undertaking -- such as permits
-- on the cultural and archeological resources of the United States,"
said archeologist Jack Irion, supervisor of the Minerals Management
Services social sciences unit.
This is more common on land, but in the case of the outer continental
shelf, Irion said it applies to two things:
- Drowned prehistoric sites dating back to when the shelf was
dry land thousands of years ago.
"This requirement has been incorporated into MMS regulations governing
leasing," Irion said. "However, since the Gulf of Mexico is such
a big area and shipwrecks certainly are not found everywhere, we
have conducted a number of studies based on historical records and
old charts and maps to determine the areas where wrecks are most
likely to occur."
Based on that model, oil companies are required to conduct remote
sensing surveys over leases in the areas with the highest potential
'Tremendous Amount of Data'
The move into deeper waters has made this process considerably
more difficult, Irion said.
"Many of the deepwater wrecks have been in areas that were so far
offshore we really didnt have good records on where these
ships might have sunk," he said. "Plus, the older the ship the less
precise the navigational technology was at the time, which confounds
any attempt to nail down precise locations of wrecks."
Even World War II era navigational systems were such that positions
of reported wrecks can be off by quite a bit within the standards
of navigational accuracy.
"As a result, we have been forced to expand the lease areas requiring
remote sensing surveys," he said. "In more than a few cases just
recently shipwrecks have been found in places we had no idea would
yield a wreck."
While the remote sensing surveys certainly cost oil companies time
and money, they are necessary. Some companies have attempted to
meet the lease stipulation with 3-D seismic surveys, but Irion said
that these data are not designed to image anomalies on the seafloor.
"In areas where there are known shipwrecks, they have not shown
up on 3-D seismic," he said. "The resolution simply is not good
enough for these instruments to distinguish even large shipwrecks
on the seafloor."
That may be why most of the deepwater wrecks have been found during
pipeline surveys that require shallow hazard remote sensing technology.
"The use of autonomous underwater vehicles and remotely operated
vehicles have been a tremendous leap forward in our ability to find
these wrecks," he added.
Traditionally companies used a deep tow system for pipeline surveys.
This entailed dragging the side-scan profiler on cables that in
deepwater can be five times the water depth.
"It could take five miles of cable just to tow the sensor, which
means making a turn is a laborious process that can take hours,"
he said. "Plus, a second boat is necessary to keep track of where
the sensor is on the seafloor."
There is also the constant danger that the sensor will get snagged
or the chain weighing the sensor down will cause damage on the seafloor.
"The AUVs are more expensive to deploy in terms of day rates,
but overall they can be more cost effective," he said. "We are hopeful
more companies will bring this technology into the Gulf of Mexico.
Aside from the potential to locate shipwrecks, we glean a tremendous
amount of data from these surveys."
Irion said the Viosca Knoll and Mississippi Canyon areas in the
deep water have yielded the most shipwrecks, because these areas
are in major shipping lanes coming into New Orleans.
Many of the shipwrecks are casualties of the U-boat war in the
Gulf of Mexico during World War II, when numerous tankers and freighters
were sunk by German U-boats.
fact, in May 2001, while conducting a routine pipeline survey for
BP and Shell, C&C Technologies found the only U-boat sunk in
the Gulf -- solving a 59-year old mystery and ending decades of
The submarine lies in 5,000 feet of water, 45 miles off the mouth
of the Mississippi River, within a mile of her last victim, the
passenger ship SS Robert E. Lee. Lafayette, La.-based C&C Technologies
made the discovery on the Gulf of Mexico maiden voyage for its newly
developed unmanned mini-submarine remote sensing tool.
"This has to be one of the most important discoveries in terms
of history in the Gulf area," Irion said. "Very few people today
are aware that the Germans were able to penetrate the Gulf of Mexico.
People tend to think of World War II being fought in far away places
and dont know there was action literally in site of our own
"It gives you pause to realize that the terrorist attacks on 9/11
were not the first time we have been attacked on our own shores."
In May 1942 a ship was sunk in the Gulf almost every day by the
U-boats, accounting for the lions share of the 56 total ships
"The Germans had devised a plan to raid our coasts with U-boats
as soon as we joined the war," he said. "The effort started in the
Atlantic with the goal of halting shipments of materials to Britain."
If they had been successful the outcome of the war could have been
"However, Hitler had a distrust of the navy and approved only half
of the number of U-boats his admirals had requested," he continued.
"Even so, they achieved some success because the United States were
caught completely unprepared. We had no defense against the U-boats
or an understanding of how it would impact us. We had not adopted
the tactics the British had instituted like sending ships in convoys
protected by Navy destroyers.
"Plus, people onshore were unaware of the situation," he said,
"and at night the city lights would be ablaze, backlighting the
ships as they sailed out of the harbors. They were sitting ducks."
Two-for-the-Price of One
After operating in the Atlantic, the U-boat efforts shifted to
the Gulf of Mexico, where the primary targets were tankers carrying
gasoline, fuel and other products that were critical to the war
effort in Europe.
Irion said it was estimated that the loss of every tanker was equivalent
to a division of men, so this U-boat operation had a major impact.
In fact, the first interstate pipeline was built from Texas to New
Jersey to lessen the reliance on ship transport.
During 1942 and 1943 a fleet of over 20 German U-boats cruised
the Gulf. After their initial devastating successes in May 1942,
merchant vessels began cruising with armed convoys and became a
more difficult target. Oil industry remote sensing surveys have
uncovered several of the victims of the U-boats, including the Heredia,
a United Fruit Company freighter, the oil tanker Sheherezade, and
the Gulfpenn, which carried 90,000 barrels of fuel oil.
However, the crowning discovery was the SS Robert E. Lee and the
U-166. Irion said the Robert E. Lee was hit off the mouth of the
Mississippi and its Navy escort, the sub-chaser PC-566, immediately
began dropping depth charges.
"Although the Navy was fairly convinced they had sunk the U-boat,
a couple of days later a U-boat was spotted 130 miles away by a
Coast Guard amphibious aircraft and everyone assumed it was the
same submarine," he said. "Nobody realized there were two U-boats
operating simultaneously in the same general area."
The second U-boat 171spotted by the Coast Guard was sunk later
during the war while approaching the coast of France. The captain
and several crew members survived and the captain recounted his
mission in the Gulf of Mexico and actually indicated he had been
spotted by "a flying boat," which dropped a torpedo but missed.
"So, there is documentation that this was the submarine the Coast
Guard had spotted," Irion said.
C&C Technologies has received a grant from NOAAs ocean
exploration office and they are planning to go back to the wreck
site this October to do follow-up research, particularly to assess
the preservation potential and to map the site and determine more
accurately how the submarine sank.
The company plans a live Web broadcast as well as other education
activities in conjunction with its work, he said.
Of course, the U-boat is just one of several recent deepwater shipwreck
discoveries. Recent discoveries date back to the early 1800s, complete
with fascinating histories.
February 2001 ExxonMobil notified the MMS of a shipwreck discovery
during pipeline construction in over 2,600 feet of water at its
Irion said the firm had conducted a remote sensing survey over
the pipeline route, but the small wreck was hidden in a blind spot
directly beneath the sensors. When the firm came back over the route
with an ROV to check the pipe they found the 200-year old shipwreck.
ExxonMobil sponsored a preliminary expedition to photograph the
site, which is about 30 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The lower part of the shipwreck is almost completely intact and
sitting upright on the seafloor.
The ship is about 60 feet long and its wooden hull is covered with
thin copper sheets, a method used by shipbuilders from the end of
the 1700s to the mid-1800s to protect ships from wood-eating marine
This wreck is intriguing because copper sheathing was quite expensive
and it was unusual to find it on a small merchant vessel. The ship
is just 65 feet long.
"It is proving difficult to find any historical records on the
Mica wreck," Irion said. "We have not been able to uncover why it
was in the Gulf, where it was going or where it had been. We do
know the two-masted sailing ship dates to the early part of the
1800s, between 1815 and 1820."
There was some evidence that the ship had burned. Planks recovered
from the wreck site clearly were charred and have been identified
as American white pine, which is native to the Atlantic coast north
of Virginia. Based on that information it is believed the ship was
built in the northeastern part of the United States.
Texas A&M entered into a cooperative agreement with the MMS
to conduct an archeological investigation of the shipwreck. A&M
researchers obtained detailed side scan images and videotape of
the wreck from a U.S. Navy deep research submersible.
working on the Mica shipwreck, Texas A&M researchers were
interested in studying additional deepwater wrecks and contacted
the MMS for potential sites. University researchers teamed up with
Deep Marine Technology of Houston for archeological studies of these
"We suggested they check out a target imaged by side scan technology
in the 1980s but had never been confirmed," he said. "It was definitely
ship shaped and pointed at both ends, indicating some type of sailing
Texas A&M and Deep Marine Technology used an ROV to investigate
the site and uncovered the Western Empire, a 190-foot long wooden-hull
sailing ship that sunk in 1876 in 1,300 feet of water not far from
the Mica site.
"Coincidentally, we had just taken delivery of a new computerized
Geographic Information System database of shipwrecks in the Gulf
that had been developed for MMS," Irion said. "Using this tool,
we pulled up the coordinates for the site to determine what historical
data might exist on the location and found that within a 10 mile
circle of the site a British merchant ship called the Western Empire
had been lost."
The ship was built in 1862 in Canada and initially was involved
in trade to India and Australia. On its last voyage it had picked
up timber from Louisiana.
"It is fascinating to research these wrecks," he said. "For instance,
we found records that indicated at one point during a voyage to
India there had been a mutiny on board the Western Empire, complete
with gun battle."
recent discovery was made by BP and C&C Technologies
in 4,000 feet of water in the Viosca Knoll area. The wreck of the
steam yacht Anona was identified using a combination of remote sensing
instruments in C&Cs AUV and cameras mounted on a ROV.
The Anona was a 117-foot long, steel-hulled, propeller driven
steam yacht built in 1904 for Detroit industrialist Theodore DeLong
Buhl, who owned it until his death in 1917, when it was passed to
his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Hiram Walker, founder of Canadian
Club Whiskey Distillery.
Elizabeth owned the vessel until 1924, when she sold it to a Canadian
buyer. Over the years the Anona passed to several owners until it
eventually became the property of the Pan-American Banana Producers
Association of Montreal in 1943.
"After starting life as an elegant luxury yacht , the Anona met
a rather ignominious end in 1944 when it sand carrying potatoes
to the British West Indies," he said.
The wreck of the Anona is in an excellent state of preservation,
sitting upright on its keel.
"Interestingly, we have been able to obtain the entire set of original
building plans for the ship from the MIT library where they have
been housed," Irioin said.
"A nice byproduct of our duties to regulate the offshore oil and
gas industry is that we can tell stories such as these," he added.
"The oil companies have been more than willing to shoulder the responsibility
of preserving historic shipwrecks. Many firms have come forward
voluntarily to help us research and study these wrecks.
"History is something most people find fascinating, and shipwrecks
have always been good stories."