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3-D Scanning Sonar Brings Light To Deep Ocean Shipwrecks

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Imagine trying to steer a ship through the thick fog in the early morning in the San Francisco Bay and then you hit a rock. That's what happened to the steamer named City of Rio de Janeiro in 1901. That wreck killed 128 people, and the story of what happened to the ship after it struck the rock was lost when the ship went down. But now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - or NOAA - is using new technology to try to find shipwrecks like the City of Rio and learn about what happened to them. We're joined in our studios by James Delgado. He is NOAA's Maritime Heritage program director for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Thanks much for being with us.

JAMES DELGADO: Thank you.

SIMON: So is this just an app you invented to find shipwrecks? What's the new technology?

DELGADO: (Laughter) No, it's a convergence, if you will, of different technologies that have been developed and getting better. They're almost off the shelf now. But in this case, we used a new software that links to sonar called Coda Octopus Echoscope. And it's a three-dimensional scanning sonar that helps us not only find things, but map them and measure them underwater.

SIMON: So this makes things more visible on the sea floor?

DELGADO: It does. Where we work is often in water that is so deep, so dark - in the case of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, you've got vast current with lots of sediment, so trying to find something with a visual system is like trying to find something on the sidewalk in the midst of a driving rainstorm at midnight with a flashlight. So what do you do? You turn to sound. And in this case, high-resolution sound that paints a picture of the bottom of the sea and anything that sticks out.

SIMON: Now do you have a list of famous wrecks that you kind of know where they went down and you look in those areas?

DELGADO: We have a list of wrecks. But for me, the most exciting shipwrecks that we find are the ones that didn't show up on the list.

SIMON: You have to tell us - like what?

DELGADO: Well, like a schooner in the Great Lakes. Didn't know its name, just found it sitting on the bottom. And it became very clear in looking at that this was a regular work-a-day ship sailing from the United States over to Canada, carrying a cargo of coal. And in the midst of a winter storm, these guys fought hard. You could see the evidence - the pumps had been worked, they had raised only the (unintelligible). And iced in, they probably caught a wave and just gone straight to the bottom like a submarine.

SIMON: Gosh.

DELGADO: And these guys probably went to the bottom thinking their story would never be told. And yet there we were on that deck able to tell it.

SIMON: I understand the impetus to find these wrecks and human stories. I wonder if there's also scientifically something we can learn about these bodies of water.

DELGADO: Well, there's a tremendous amount we learn scientifically. I think in one way, when we get a shipwreck and we look at it in its context on the bottom, we're getting a time-stamped entry into a scientific record that tells us what happens with colonization, with marine organisms coming and turning it into habitat.

SIMON: Forgive me for descending to this level, but I think a lot of people listening want to know, gold doubloons and pieces of eight?

DELGADO: I have seen the occasional coin.

SIMON: Yeah.

DELGADO: But for the most part no. You don't see ships with treasure. I think that's a dream of many, but the reality is that the treasure's really the knowledge.

SIMON: I understand you've been looking for a tugboat?

DELGADO: We have seen the tug. We found it with our latest survey in September. It's a mystery wreck that's part of this Gulf of the Farrallones survey. We're still trying to sort out exactly what it is. There's no record of a tugboat having been lost out there. We've got pretty good historic records. So we're analyzing all the data and we may very well go back out and take another look at it.

SIMON: But you can see artifacts in the...?

DELGADO: Well, you can see artifacts. There are plates and dishes. You can see the ship's machinery, the towing winches there - looks like the wire is slipped. Maybe they were towing and were damage and that's why it went down. But everything is in place. So it's another one of those cases where you look at it and you have this sense that something went wrong terribly, and maybe that's why we don't know exactly who it is.

SIMON: James Delgado is the Maritime Heritage program director for the Office of National Maritime Sanctuaries. Thanks so much for being with us.

DELGADO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.