The Daunting Task of Locating and Exploring Shipwrecks

Say “shipwreck” and one’s mind might wander to mystery and adventure featuring pirates, deserted islands, and chests spilling over with gold bullion. The reality is, of course, much more stark and devastating when taking into account loss of life, livelihood, and trade goods. A recent article by Jay Bennett in Popular Mechanics estimates more than 3 million shipwrecks are scattered across the world’s oceans. “This number represents ships throughout the entirety of human history,” Bennett writes, “from 10,000-year-old dugout canoes preserved in the muck to 21st Century wrecks you might have read about in the news.”

Beyond the mind-boggling notion of 3 million shipwrecks, one must also process the treasure contained within those doomed vessels, most of which is unknown and unsurveyed. According to Bennett, lack of time and money make it impossible to find and/or explore them all. “In fact, less than 10 percent of the shipwrecks that we’ve located—which account for just 10 percent of all shipwrecks in the world—have been surveyed or visited by divers,” writes Bennett.

It appears that the reason to find and explore these shipwrecks is multifold—the key reasons being safety (to ensure they do not pose a risk to other vessels), ecology, historical significance, and reward. Though it is difficult to map shipwrecks, the Popular Mechanics article reads, “NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey maintains a database of about 20,000 ships that is available to the public, primarily for the benefit of navigators and researchers. The information for that database comes from two organizations within NOAA, the Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC) and the Automated Wrecks and Obstructions Information System (AWOIS).”

As for actual sunken treasure, it’s estimated there is at least $60 billion resting on the ocean floor. A financeonline.com article titled, “8 Valuable Shipwrecks That Will Get You Interested in Sea Exploration” outlined some of the more interesting (and known) shipwrecks. For example, the SS Gairsoppa was lost in 1941 during World War II with 7 million ounces of silver. Uncovered in 2011, the silver is now worth $210 million. Queen Anne’s Revenge, which was infamous pirate Blackbeard’s flagship in the early 1700s, ran aground near North Carolina in 1718. According to financeonline.com, “Tens of thousands of artifacts of important cultural importance have been recovered so far ranging from navigation tools to storage items that give archaeologists insight to the period and pirate culture.” Diamonds, silver, and gold aside, 200 bottles of Heidsieck Champagne were in a 1916 shipwreck off of Finland. Recovered in 1997, the bottles can be purchased for $275,000 a piece at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow.

With searches for doomed ships sometimes costing millions of dollars, the concept of locating and then exploring the 3 million shipwrecks seems daunting at best. But, according to Popular Mechanics’ Bennett, organizations are offering sizable rewards “for private teams that build an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and create a bathymetric map (like a topographic map, but of the sea floor).” With 90-95% of the ocean floor still unexplored, it will be exciting to see what science, explorers, and inspired teams come up with to ease the task of finding true sunken treasure.

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