Locating a Shipwreck

An old ship’s ledger. This type of document would be used in the research process.

I have always wondered exactly how a shipwreck is found. What sort of research goes into locating a shipwreck, and once you know where it is, what do you need to do to get its contents onto the land? I sat down with my dad Greg Brooks this week to talk about just that. He walked me through the process and I am now aware just how much work goes into each stage of the operation.

The first stage is figuring out which shipwreck to go for. There are many ways to learn about shipwrecks, and now that we have the internet at our disposal, information is easier to come by. Prior to the internet boom of the mid to late 90s, the shipwreck business relied heavily on libraries and national archives to find information on wreck sites. At the beginning of my dad’s career, he focused primarily on Haiti and other Caribbean locations because those places are hot spots for sunken ships. The water there is clear, typically shallow (which makes it easier to dive and practically eliminates the need for remote operated vehicles and other expensive equipment), and he had personally found silver bars on a dive trip, which gave him the advantage to knowing there was something of value in that area. As time went on, he began branching out and exploring the east coast of the United States.

Over time, people came forth with information about shipwrecks. Often, scuba divers would be out looking for marine life when they would stumble across something that didn’t belong on the ocean floor, such as a cannon or an anchor. My dad was always on the lookout for these word-of-mouth stories, though they didn’t always pan out. Just because there is an anchor or a cannon on the ocean floor does not mean that there is a shipwreck nearby. It was common for ships to have to throw these things overboard to lighten their loads. Even if these items did indicate a shipwreck, it wouldn’t mean that there was anything of value onboard.

With the internet, information became more readily accessible. Archaeologists, museums and depositories would publish their works online, which would often contain valuable information about wrecks. My dad continued his research and would look into any claims people had, though he remained skeptical. In his early days it was tempting to just go out and look for any shipwreck someone said was there, but he started to learn that many of these stories were just rumors or hearsay, and while it doesn’t cost as much money to research, it would drain his finances and time to actually go out and look for things that may or may not be there. He made sure to find sufficient proof before going out to look for wrecks. The other problem with these stories was that even if there was a shipwreck out there, it might not be exactly where everyone originally thought. Currents, floating debris, and many other factors play into the final resting spot of wrecks.

An investor and friend of my dad’s, David Smith, happened to stumble across a shipwreck while out in his fishing boat. He had a dragger boat that would scour the floor of the sea for bottom fish. While out dragging, he located a stack of copper buckets that were nesting inside of each other. This type of thing was curious, because it was unlikely someone throw an entire stack of pails off their ship. It was likely a piece of cargo, meaning there was probably more of this sort of thing wherever the ship ended up. A piece of evidence like this could be enough to go search for the ship in question.

Difficulties did arise, for sure. In the 1940s, many people would recover sunken cannons from wrecks and make them into bullets and tanks for the war effort. These cannons were made of ferrous metals and were telltale signs that a shipwreck was present nearby. A magnetometer would alert you of ferrous metals, which would generally mean a ship was close. Without these cannons as markers, it was much harder to locate wrecks.

Next time I will examine step two – once a shipwreck has been decided upon and there is sufficient evidence that it really exists and has valuable cargo, how do you actually find the placement on the ocean floor, and how do you recover it?

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