Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 2020 Expedition

Exploring Stellwagen Bank’s depths using state-of-the-art technology

This summer, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is teaming up with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Marine Imaging Technologies to explore the life and shipwrecks of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The team will build upon the successes of the 2019 expedition to further explore the biological and archaeological resources of the sanctuary. Research will focus on previously visited shipwrecks as well as an unidentified wreck and compare biological life on these shipwrecks to life on natural hard-bottom habitats elsewhere on the bank.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an 842-square-mile marine protected area at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, situated between Cape Ann and Cape Cod and 25 miles east of Boston. The sanctuary is home to a wide variety of marine species, including iconic species like humpback whales and cod, but is also the final resting place for a number of historic shipwrecks, including the steamship Portland.

There are an estimated 200 wrecks in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 47 of which have been documented and 12 of which have been identified. Portland is one of the most iconic and best studied shipwrecks in the sanctuary. Built in 1889, the steamer ran between Portland, Maine and Boston, Massachusetts, until it sank with all hands in 1898. Portland is often referred to as “New England’s Titanic,” and its loss is still felt throughout the region. This year, scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Marine Imaging Technologies, and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary will build on work done last year to assess the current state of the steamship Portland to better understand the last moments before it sank and its gradual change over time.

A painting of the steamship portland
An artist’s rendering of Portland sailing in the Gulf of Maine in 1891. Photo: Maine Historical Society
A cod swims above a shipwreck
The shipwreck of Portland now acts as a home for marine species such as redfish and cod, as seen in this image. Image: WHOI/NOAA
The hull of a shipwreck
An early glimpse of the mystery coal schooner, an unidentified shipwreck first discovered in 2003. Photo: NOAA/NURC-UConn/The Science Channel

In addition to exploring the wreck of Portland, the research team will be working to solve a maritime mystery. In 2003, sanctuary scientists located a new shipwreck, dubbed the “mystery coal schooner.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, schooners carried coal to heat homes, power factories, and fuel railroads. In 2020, researchers hope to learn the identity of the mystery coal schooner through the combination of high resolution imagery of the entire wreck and historical research.

anemones on a shipwreck
Marine invertebrates, like these colorful anemones, settle and grow on hard surfaces like shipwrecks and rocky reefs. Photo: WHOI/NOAA

Not only are these shipwrecks part of the region's rich maritime history, but they have also become home to a wide diversity of marine species. Because shipwrecks provide a solid substrate for animals and plants to attach, they serve as artificial hard-bottom reefs. This year, scientists will use advanced technology to compare biological communities on shipwrecks to several boulder reefs in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Last year, surveys unveiled that a number of species, including sponges, anemones, sea stars, and fish are using shipwrecks as their home. “Shipwrecks are underappreciated as habitats, but they host abundant biological communities,” says Dr. Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, the lead scientist for the project. “This project is designed to shed light on wrecks as habitats, answer some of our scientific questions, and help preserve them for years to come.”

Returning to explore in 2020 are Pixel, a cinema-class remotely operated vehicle (ROV), and Rover, an ROV equipped to collect samples from the seafloor. The team will also collect new images to continue building three-dimensional photogrammetric models. These models will help scientists understand the condition of shipwrecks in the sanctuary, and will be used to create 360° virtual underwater tours of these unique and historic sites. A live telepresence link from ship to shore will give students and the public a rare behind-the-scenes look at an oceanographic research expedition in action. The live link will be using customized microwave technology, developed by Avwatch in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which will allow for high bandwidth transmissions.

A man sits on the edge of a voat looking at an ROV just below the surface
ROV Pixel serves as the science team’s eyes underwater, collecting high-quality video and images of historic shipwrecks and vibrant marine life beneath the surface of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg/NOAA
An ROV examens a shipwreck
Pixel examines a shipwreck. Photo: Marine Imaging Technologies/NOAA
This 3D photogrammetric model allows archaeologists to take a closer look at the steamship Portland and learn how it has changed over time. The 2020 expedition will collect additional footage to help fill in some of the gaps in this model. Video: Marine Imaging Technologies/NOAA

New for 2020 is Catapult, Marine Imaging Technologies’ 35-foot catamaran. Catapult will support the team as they collect video and data at various locations throughout the summer. In August, the team will transition to a larger vessel, the University of Connecticut’s R/V Connecticut, to continue exploring and run live programs. Collection of video footage from Catapult will begin in early summer 2020, with R/V Connecticut operations taking place August 25 through 27. For more information on how you can take part in live interactions, please visit the live programming segment located at the bottom of this page.

Two people look at a small screen
Dr. Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser and Dr. Calvin Mires examine live underwater footage beaming from the wreck of Portland. Image: Elizabeth Weinberg/NOAA

You can follow all the action on the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries social media channels, and check back here for updates, photos, and video as the expedition continues.

Live Programming

Interested in connecting with live programming from the depths of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary? Shipboard broadcast capabilities aboard Research Vessel (R/V) Connecticut enable you to engage in a unique live dialogue with scientists, engineers, and on-board team members that will be supported with visually-rich content and programming on this webpage.

Each viewer will have the capability to interact with questions and answers throughout the live broadcast by submitting them through the question form below with the live viewing feed. Questions will be monitored and addressed by the host and answered by the science team. Each broadcast will be 30 to 45 minutes long and will cover science, technology, and maritime heritage. Check out recorded programs from in 2019.

If you are an educator or science institution facilitator or have an interest in sharing these programs with your audience in a direct capacity by two-way video feeds, please fill out this form by July 25th, 2020.

Below is more specific information on each of our live broadcasts.

Tuesday, August 25

Title: New Life After Tragedy: Exploring the Shipwreck Portland
10:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connection to camps or schools
11:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connections to camps or schools
2:30 p.m. EST; 45 minute indirect connection viewable online and at partner venues
6:30 p.m. EST: 45 minute indirect connection viewable online and at partner venues

Wednesday, August 26

Title: The Case of the Mystery Schooner: Exploring an Unidentified Shipwreck in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
10:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connection to camps or schools
11:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connections to camps or schools
2:30 p.m. EST; 45 minute indirect connection viewable online and at partner venues
6:30 p.m. EST: 45 minute indirect connection viewable online and at partner venues

Thursday, August 27

Title: The Case of the Mystery Schooner: Exploring an Unidentified Shipwreck in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
10:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connection to camps or schools
11:30 a.m. EST: 30 minute direct connections to camps or schools
2:30 p.m. EST; 45 minute indirect connection viewable online and at partner venues

Educational Resources