Sunken history, revealed

by Petty Officer Etta Smith

Twelve brawny men, mostly strangers, pile into a cramped room and gather around a conference table. They listen carefully to the meticulous instruction of a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration scientist as he explains the process for measuring and documenting underwater artifacts. The men are as unfamiliar with the techniques being taught as they are with each other. As they learn the methods, they make light-hearted jokes with one another to break the ice.

Who are these men? Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team divers from California, New York, Florida and Massachusetts.

The mission? To find and document the remains of the original Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, a lighthouse that collapsed into the ocean in 1851, only one year after its construction.

After a brief training session with NOAA staff at Coast Guard Sector Boston and a short, hands-on exercise in the parking lot, the divers were ready to explore the seabed surrounding the current Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, about four miles east of Scituate, Mass.

This archeological expedition was the result of the culminated efforts of active duty, reserve, retired and auxiliary Coast Guard members in conjunction with more than nine other agencies.

“The project goal was to document the underwater remains of the original lighthouse structure by documenting individual items and mapping their locations to produce a map of the submerged site,” said Lt. j.g. Keith Meverden, the Coast Guard’s underwater archaeologist on the project. “This information is used to create a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.”

While several assets and agencies collaborated to carry out this mission, perhaps the most unique tool used throughout the week was a remote operated vehicle, from MSST Boston.

This was truly an uncommon mission for the divers and the ROV operator. Typically, MSST divers and the ROV are deployed in support of homeland security missions, said Petty Officer First Class Carl Shipley, the ROV operator from MSST Boston.

Working outside of his typical harbor environment, Shipley inevitably encountered new challenges at Minot’s Ledge. “For me, the most challenging part was dealing with the currents around the ledge,” he said. “I was forced to add extra weight to the robot, allowing the robot to dive to the sea floor, but it also made the robot very hard to maneuver.”

Although Shipley encountered challenges on the dive site, the project leaders said Shipley’s ability to adapt accordingly proved beneficial to the mission.

The ROV helped the archaeologists and dive teams by allowing a larger area around the lighthouse to be searched, said Lt. j.g. Keith Wilkins, from MSST N.Y., the lead dive officer on the project.

“This area (covered by the ROV) was in addition to the area originally laid out by the underwater archaeologists,” said Wilkins. “After seeing the video recording of what the ROV had seen, we could start a search around the marker buoy that was dropped.”

On the third day of the deployment, Shipley discovered remnants of iron beams that are believed to be structural support legs for the fallen lighthouse.

“Day three… success! My expectations were immediately fulfilled,” said Shipley. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I will remember this operation for years to come and probably even tell my grandkids about it.”

While Shipley overcame unexpected difficulties at Minot’s Ledge, the dive teams enjoyed the benefits of the off shore environment.

“Visibility being about ten feet throughout the operation was a nice treat because in N.Y. Harbor we are lucky if we can see our hand in front of our face,” said Wilkins.

The improved visibility was an asset to the operation because divers said finding artifacts that have been resting on the sea floor for more than 150 years can be difficult.

“I literally had my face in every nook and cranny I could see on the ocean bottom,” said Wilkins.

Shipley compared it to, ‘looking for a needle in a haystack.’

Not only were the artifacts hard for the divers to identify but Meverden had the task of translating the divers’ descriptions, sketches and measurements the divers had recorded on underwater slates.

“Trying to interpret data gathered underwater from a second-hand perspective was challenging,” said Meverden. “It was difficult to assess what was being located on the bottom without seeing and touching it for myself.”

The ability to see and touch these artifacts allows us to preserve history for future generations. Since the initial dive, subsequent smaller dives have taken place to continue the search for artifacts and details with which to map the site.

“This operation showed how standardized military dive training allows for several dive teams to come together as one cohesive unit within a very short period of time,” said Wilkins.

Bringing 12 strangers together to work in an unfamiliar environment, with new equipment and techniques could have presented many opportunities for failure. However, because of the standardized training each diver received, the divers met on Sunday and were in the water documenting artifacts on Monday to enable historians and archaeologists to continue to learn from the secrets history leaves behind.

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