Living Museums In the Sea:
Students Help Preserve Underwater Artifacts
By Stacy Chen
For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Beeker has been working with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to make his vision of “living museums in the sea” a reality. As the director of Indiana University’s (IU) Center for Underwater Science, Dr. Beeker and his colleagues engage university students as curators of many of the underwater artifacts and biological resources in the National Marine Sanctuary System. “[W]hen [I’m] asked what started me on the path to my current career,” says Dr. Beeker, “I give this great quote: ‘The sea is an underwater museum still awaiting its visitors’ – Philip Diole, 1951.” Though perhaps less well-known than museums on land, these underwater archives are key to the preservation of our rich maritime history.
Diving Back to the Beginning
Subject to the dynamic marine environment, periodically destructive storm events, impacts from visitors and a changing climate, shipwrecks and their encrusting marine life have highly complex relationships that influence site preservation. Detecting changes to a shipwreck covered in coral and surrounded by the colorful marine life is a challenging task for resource managers. Nevertheless, these historical artifacts that rest on the seafloor of America’s underwater parks hold great biological and archaeological value, and require active monitoring and research for their continued preservation. The partnership between NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Indiana University’s Center for Underwater Science emerged as a response to this call.
“IU has worked with [the national marine sanctuaries] since the early 1990s, and contributed to the maritime heritage section of the first Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Cultural Resource Management Plan,” says Dr. Beeker. Indiana University’s Center for Underwater Science is one of the oldest and largest academic diving programs in the U.S. and a leader in maritime archeology, underwater research, resource management, and park development. In 2018, the program signed a five-year agreement with NOAA to expand their partnership, which gave university students ready access to research opportunities at national marine sanctuaries seeking assistance with managing historical resources, and paved the way for its summer-long field projects in the sanctuary system.
From the Straits of Florida to the Great Lakes
“As a student with IU's Center for Underwater Science, I participated in research and gained invaluable professional experience through the many partnerships and projects that IU is involved with. I learned artifact conservation, shipbuilding techniques, and archaeological theory while having the opportunity to dive on some of the best shipwrecks in the Caribbean,” says Tori Galloway, a 2019 graduate from the program and a current visiting lecturer with the center. She was also part of the crew who documented first-hand the impacts of Hurricane Irma on the 1733 shipwrecks of the Florida Keys. That summer, she and her team created 3D models of the remains. Comparing the models against data from the previous years, they “found [newly] exposed wood on San Felipe” resulting from the sand movement caused by Hurricane Irma.
Since then, students have published a collection of 3D models of the shipwreck sites and coral colonies at the San Pedro Underwater Archeological Preserve, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail, using a technique called photogrammetry. This technique is being used increasingly to document archaeological sites and natural resources underwater. “Hundreds to thousands of images are taken of an object or area that are then processed and stitched together in a computer software program to create 3D rotating models with sub-centimeter accuracy,” explains Emma DeLillo, a graduate from the program. Since changes to these underwater landscapes are too subtle to be noticed by divers, these 3D models will come in handy for future research projects.
Similar work has also been done in the Great Lakes. The cold waters of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary don’t experience hurricanes, but are affected by other human and environmental factors that can impact the preservation of shipwreck sites. The steady movement of sand, ice, wind, and waves in these shallow waters require long-term monitoring to detect the slight changes in these archeological and biological structures.
In the summer of 2019, Indiana University students spent hours in the water gathering photos of the 1905 SS Joseph S. Fay shipwreck. “Documenting the SS Joseph S. Fay was a great experience for our students. Many of them had never been diving on a ship of that time period with that level of preservation before,” says Samuel Haskell, the assistant director of the IU Center for Underwater Science. He also explains that many of the student and faculty participants grew up on the Great Lakes and felt a deep kinship with the waters of Lake Huron. For many of these student divers, the field school meant more than just dive training and preserving maritime heritage – it was a way to share these cultural resources with the public and give back to the community. By the end of the project, their work amounted to a rapid assessment report that provided recommendations for site enhancement, monitoring, and public outreach, as well as baseline 3D models of the site that will serve as a reference for future research.
A Portal for Future Projects
The unique opportunities offered by this partnership benefit both the students and the National Marine sanctuary System. “The mapping and monitoring work done in both the Florida Keys and Thunder Bay are crucial to the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ mission to preserve these sites for their biological, historical, and cultural values,” said Joseph Hoyt, National Maritime Heritage Program coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “The work that these students have done helps our team better manage these resources for the enjoyment and appreciation of current and future generations.”
“Experience gained by IU's efforts to implement its museums in the sea concept has brought new ideas into practice in the Florida Keys, greatly expanding sanctuary resource management capabilities,” says Matthew Lawrence, maritime archaeologist at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Without the use of technology like photogrammetry, and the help of IU students, sanctuary staff would have to rely on limited manpower, time, and resources to meet inventory requirements. On the other hand, the fieldwork component of the program gives students hands-on experience as museum curators for archaeological sites with intriguing stories. When asked to share a fond memory of her time with the program, DeLillo expressed that “it was really rewarding to see [the historic shipwrecks] in person and help document them to aid in future monitoring and management.” Like DeLillo and Galloway, many graduates attribute their passion for underwater science to the program and graduate to become vanguards of maritime heritage management.
Though students come and go, the program and its faculty members continue to sustain this partnership with the sanctuaries. Though all programs were postponed in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the center is looking to resume internship opportunities and shallow water dives in 2021, using appropriate health and safety precautions. Another important aspect of Indiana University’s work became even more apparent as a result of the pandemic. The 3D models created allow anyone to virtually explore national marine sanctuary shipwrecks from the safety of their home. Over time, these 3D models of underwater artifacts support maritime conservation and sustainable tourism, especially in the age of climate change and increasing human populations.
The program may expand to other sanctuaries in the future. However, the need for this kind of work goes far beyond sanctuary waters. The concept of having living museums in the sea is already a reality, providing opportunities for people from all walks of life – students, professors, researchers, sanctuary staff, divers, and history buffs – to participate in maritime conservation.
Stacy Chen is a recreation and tourism intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and an undergraduate student at Duke University.