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The Hunt for the Alligator

2004 Hunt for the Alligator Expedition Log for Friday, August 27, 2004

On Board the YP679 Afloat Lab
Chief Petty Officer John Williams
Fleet Combat Camera Atlantic

NOAA and East Carolina University researchers deploy a sidescan sonar towfish from the Office of Naval Research's YP-679 Afloat Lab. (Photo: David Hall /NOAA)
(Click on the image for a large version)
My name is Chief Petty Officer John Williams and I am a Naval Reserve photographer with Fleet Combat Camera Atlantic, currently on assignment documenting the 2004 Hunt for the Alligator Expedition.

When the Office of Naval Research (ONR) emailed and asked if I wanted to be a part of this Expedition, I jumped at the chance. With recent assignments in the Persian Gulf region and having just spent 11 months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I knew this was going to be a unique and different mission. At the time, all I knew was that I was supposed to document the search for the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, the Alligator. I soon realized that I would be learning much more.

Reading everything I could about the Alligator only made me want to know more. Additionally, having the opportunity to learn about NOAA, their National Marine Sanctuary Program, marine archeology from some East Carolina University professors and graduate students, and about the high-tech equipment being used on this expedition has been fascinating. See, I spent the first four years of my Naval career aboard the USS Sam Rayburn, a nuclear missile submarine based in Holy Loch, Scotland. Submarines and submarine history has always been a part of my life.
Nova Ray Manager for Quality Assurance, Karl Kunkle, right, maneuvers the Model 3500 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) , while Commander, Jerry Stefanko with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) monitors the results from the side scan sonar. (U.S. Navy Photograph by Chief Journalist John F. Williams)(Click on the image for a large version)
I have been in Ocracoke, N.C., from the start of the expedition and will be here through the end. And other than some rough seas and a little bit of bad weather, photographing the Hunt has been pretty straight forward, trying to tell the story of the Alligator and those involved. I have quite a bit of time at sea, with some periods lasting up to 24 hours, giving me plenty of time to be as creative as possible with my coverage.

For those interested in photo equipment and gear, I am using two Nikon digital cameras, three lenses, a 14mm, 17-55mm, and an 80-200mm. I also have a 2X converter and three SB-800 flash units. I am downloading and then captioning my images on a 12” Macintosh G-4 Powerbook using Photo Mechanic and PhotoShop. At the end of each day I transmit a selection of my images to the Joint Combat Camera Center and the Chief of Naval Information, both located in the Pentagon. From there, the images are archived and made available to the media and also to the public, via the Web at Additionally, I have been providing images to NOAA and ONR for their Web sites.

Any chance you get to document history can be exciting. To be able to tell this story and be a part of history, whether we find the location of the Alligator on this mission or not, is what I love about being a journalist, It’s why I stay in the Navy. I just hope that my photos tell the story of the Expedition and all those that have been a part of it.

Michael Overfield Chief Scientist/Archaeologist

Once again the scientific and YP staff meet at 4:30 a.m. on the YP 's fantail for the daily safety briefing and POD. The times selected for departing port are decided upon based on high tide. Leaving Ocracoke Inlet at high tide provides the YP with a safe clearance beneath its hull to transit out into the ocean without hitting the bottom. Testing of the NovaRay remotely operated vehicle is the first order of business. Three hours were allocated for this phase of the project. Once testing of this new technology was completed, side scan and magnetometer operations commenced. Additional survey work covered an additional 8 nautical miles and yielded areas of interest for the scientific staff. Plans for tomorrow will call for the ROV to be used as a drop camera to provide some visual ground truthing of areas of interest.

Second Lieutenant Quinn Rinehart
US Marine Corps
Frank Cantelas, left, staff archeologist, East Carolina University and crew aboard the Office of Naval Research (ONR) vessel YP-679, Afloat Lab, retrieve the side scan sonar unit at the end of the day.
(U.S. Navy Photograph by Chief Journalist John F. Williams)
(Click on the image for a large version)
My name is Second Lieutenant Quinn Rinehart, a recent graduate from the United States Naval Academy. I am currently stationed in Annapolis, Maryland on temporary duty until I report to Quantico, Virginia for Marine Corps training at the Basic School in November.

I began research on the Alligator project over a year ago in the spring of 2003 as a second-class midshipman in the Ocean Engineering major along with three other midshipmen, two Oceanographers and another Ocean Engineer. ONR and NOAA asked the Academy to put the team together in response to the growing interest in the Alligator. The project was a challenge from the start, especially from an engineering standpoint, because there were not any blueprints or accurate descriptions of the Alligator that had been found yet. Therefore, the bulk of my research was spent digging through archives and making assumptions on the submersible based on the technologies of the time period.

I concluded my research at the end of the semester knowing that our team had only scratched the surface. I was not able to continue research on the Alligator because of other commitments, but I inquired about the project occasionally from contacts at NOAA and through e-mail. Several weeks ago when I found out NOAA and ONR were planning another expedition to search for the Alligator, I was thrilled that they asked me to come along. Leaps and bounds had been made in the research since my participation in the project and I could not wait to see first hand the results of all the combined efforts over the year.

I arrived in Ocracoke on Monday, 23AUG04 excited to begin the search for the Alligator. Due to problems with the weather, I was not able to leave port for my first trip until Thursday. The seas were pretty rough and we were visited with rain showers off and on. However, it was exciting to see the teams from ONR, NOAA, and East Carolina University come together to search for the missing submersible in the graveyard of the Atlantic.

Today I am out on my second trip and the weather has been gorgeous. The seas only slightly rock the boat and the wind has cooled the decks of the YP as the crew works. The side scan sonar has picked up a few anomalies, which gives me hope that something is down there. Whether we find the Alligator this week or not, I am certain based on the hard work and excitement to find this Civil War submersible that it will not be lost at sea forever.

Ivar Babb
Director, National Undersea Research Center/University of Connecticut.
Frank Cantelas, left, Staff Archeologist with East Carolina University's Maritime Studies Program explains the search grid to 2004 Naval Academy graduate, 2nd Lt. Quinn Rinehart, during the 2004 Hunt for the Alligator Expedition. Rinehart, while still a student, was part of a team of Midshipman tasked with researching the location of the Alligator. (U.S. Navy Photograph by Chief Journalist John F. Williams)
(Click on the image for a large version)
My role in the Hunt for the Alligator is to work with the Alligator Educational Team to develop creative ways to bring the excitement and science of the search into the classroom. This year we are documenting all of the at-sea activities on videotape with the goal of developing engaging video content that will be placed on a Video on Demand (VOD) server. This server will then be available for teachers and students to visit on their own time and schedule via a Web interface that is being provided by Vbrick Systems Inc. One of the biggest challenges we face is to identify the data we are collecting that can be used in a problem-based context. We ideally want to have VOD server provide a portal from which teachers and students can view and analyze the data we have posted just as we are attempting to do while on board the vessel.

This is day one for me on the mission. We have collected side scan sonar data and we will attempt to collect some bottom video with the ROV this afternoon. These are the types of data that we hope to process into video that can be used in the classroom. The team is committed and enthusiastic, I hope we can encapsulate this excitement in our video content as well, for this is the essence of exploration and discovery. To this end, our goal for next year is to have a real-time ship to shore capability to conduct an interactive Webcast that will be viewed live in the classroom to bring you the next phase of the Hunt for the Alligator.

Alligator Hunt Team  
The crew works to hoist the Nova Ray model 3500 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) aboard the Office of Naval Research (ONR) vessel YP-679, Afloat Lab, (U.S. Navy Photograph by Chief Journalist John F. Williams)
(Click on the image for a large version)