It’s a golden age for shipwreck discoveries. Why?

A mechanical technology for OceanX works on a submarine at the Triton Facility in Sebastian, Florida, October 25, 2019. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

Some were legendary ships that have fascinated people for generations, such as the Endurance, Ernest Shackleton’s ship that sank in Antarctica in 1915. Some were common workhorses that disappeared into the depths, such as the Ironton, a ship carrying 1,000 tons of grain when it sank in Lake Huron in 1894.

Regardless of their place in history, more shipwrecks are being found today than ever before, according to those who work in the rarefied world of deep-sea exploration.

“More are being found, and I also think more people are paying attention,” said James P. Delgado, an underwater archaeologist based in Washington, DC. He added: “We are in a transition phase where the real period of deep-sea diving and ocean exploration in general is now beginning in earnest.”

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So what’s behind the increase?

Experts point to a number of factors. Technology, they say, has made it easier and cheaper to scan the ocean floor, making hunting accessible to amateurs and professionals alike. More and more people are exploring the ocean for research and commercial ventures. Shipwreck hunters also look for wrecks for their historical value, rather than for sunken treasure. And climate change has intensified storms and beach erosion, exposing shipwrecks in shallow water.

Underwater robots and new imaging help with this.

Experts agreed that new technology has revolutionized deep-sea exploration.

Free-swimming robots, known as autonomous underwater vehicles, are much more common than they were two decades ago and can scan large areas of the ocean floor without having to be tethered to a research vessel, director J. Carl Hartsfield said. and senior program manager of the Oceanographic Systems Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Remotely operated vehicles can travel 40 kilometers under the ice cap in the polar regions, he said. And satellite images can detect shipwrecks from the plumes of sediment moving around them that are visible from space.

“The technology is more capable and portable and built on scientists’ budgets,” Hartsfield said, adding, “You can sample larger and larger areas of the ocean per dollar.”

Jeremy Weirich, director of Ocean Exploration at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the increased use of telepresence systems, which stream images of the ocean floor to anyone with an Internet connection, has allowed more people to explore and discover shipwrecks in real time .

And the digitization of archives has made it easier to find and access historical documents, says David L. Means, a marine scientist and shipwreck researcher.

Yet it’s still easier to organize a mission to find a famous wreck than an obscure one, Hartsfield said.

“You can push investors to find out what happened to Amelia Earhart, but you can’t push for freighters,” he said. “It’s all about the compelling story.”

Climate change is a factor.

Climate change is playing a role, experts say, by causing more frequent and powerful storms that have eroded coastlines and upended sunken ships.

For example, in late January, just months after Hurricane Fiona ravaged Canada, a 19th-century shipwreck washed up in the remote Cape Ray section of Newfoundland, causing an uproar in the small community of about 250 people.

In 2020, a couple walking along a beach in St. Augustine, Florida noticed wooden beams and bolts sticking out of the sand. Archaeologists said the pieces were most likely remains of the Caroline Eddy, a ship built during the Civil War that sank in 1880. They were likely exposed, experts said, because of coastal erosion caused by a tropical storm called Eta and by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.

These types of coastal discoveries could become increasingly common, Delgado said. “As the ocean rises,” he said, “it digs out things that have been buried or hidden for more than a century.”

Treasure hunting isn’t what it used to be.

Private treasure hunters still search for shipwrecks, hoping to find sunken gold, coins or jewelry. But their discoveries often become embroiled in legal battles, and rarely are their claims ever realized, says Deborah N. Carlson, president of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a nonprofit research organization.

She pointed out that underwater archaeologist Peter Throckmorton once called the search for ocean treasure “the worst investment in the world” and found that it “only benefits promoters and lawyers.”

Private claims on a sunken ship can be disputed by countries or insurers. Spain, for example, successfully defended its claim to retain ownership of a Spanish frigate sunk by the British in 1804 after an American treasure hunting company found the shipwreck off the coast of Portugal in 2007 and sent its hoard of gold and silver coins to a Florida Warehouse.

The UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, adopted in 2001, aimed to protect shipwrecks from looters and said countries should preserve these and other undersea relics “for the benefit of humanity.”

Hartsfield said if the goal is to “observe and not disturb” a shipwreck, costs go down because no one has to lower a submarine on a winch to pick stuff from the ocean floor. Scientists, he said, can simply use a video camera to record the artifacts they find.

“Now your gold coin is a 4K photo,” Hartsfield said, referring to a type of high-definition video. “If your sensors are better, you don’t necessarily have to recover an object to investigate it.”

Even more are joining in and exploring the depths of the ocean.

While treasure hunters still ply their trade, more commercial and research ventures have joined them, expanding the realm of deep-sea exploration.

Weirich said more and more shipwrecks have been found over the years, largely because private companies have investigated oil and gas leases, cables and pipelines.

Phil Hartmeyer, a marine archaeologist with NOAA Ocean Exploration, said more private research groups are also scanning the ocean floor, helping bring scientists around the world closer to the goal of mapping the entire seafloor by 2030.

For example, NOAA partners with the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit research group founded by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, and his wife Wendy Schmidt; the Ocean Exploration Trust, a nonprofit founded by Robert Ballard, who led the expedition that found the Titanic in 1985; and OceanX, an ocean exploration company founded by billionaire investor Ray Dalio and his son Mark.

Carlson said the field of underwater archeology has also “expanded significantly,” with more graduate programs producing archaeologists interested in excavating sunken ships for their historical value.

“There are a lot more people in this discipline than there were 50 years ago,” Carlson said, “and a lot more people are looking for and finding shipwrecks.”

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