Maritime archaeologists document historic Graveyard of the Atlantic shipwrecks

By Elizabeth Weinberg

November 2018

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a world-renowned destination for beachgoing, fishing, and more. But what many visitors to the area don’t know is that the beautiful blue waves also hide centuries-old stories. The area off North Carolina is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, named for the many shipwrecks that came to an untimely end here.

This summer, researchers from Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and its partners visited and documented two of the wrecks that now rest on the ocean floor: the submarine USS Tarpon, and the passenger liner Proteus. While both wrecks are popular dive sites, neither had ever been documented before by maritime archaeologists.

diver and fish swim near a shipwreck
NOAA Restoration Center biologist Dave Witting conducts a fish count on the WWII-era submarine USS Tarpon. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Stories of our maritime past

USS Tarpon has an especially storied history. The naval submarine operated in the Pacific throughout World War II, beginning its war patrol two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout its tour, Tarpon sank several Japanese vessels, and became the first U.S. submarine to sink a German raider in the Pacific. For its service in World War II, the submarine earned seven battle stars denoting its accomplishments as a warship.

After the end of the war, Tarpon was decommissioned and became a training submarine for the 8th Naval District, based in New Orleans. In 1956, it was sold for scrap – but before it could be broken up, it sank while under tow off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. There it has rested ever since. At 135 feet depth, it is a draw for experienced divers and for an abundance of marine life.

shark swimming past a shipwreck
A sand tiger shark swims above the wreck of the USS Tarpon. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Unlike many of the vessels in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, including Tarpon, Proteus was never a warship; rather, this passenger liner carried travelers between New York and New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. The ship was modern, and for its time, it was luxurious, with heating and bathrooms in each cabin.

But though Proteus wasn’t a warship, the loss of the vessel ties into the story of World War I. Near the end of the war, on August 8, 1918, Proteus was heading north toward New York City. All of its lights, including its navigation lights, were turned off in accordance with wartime anti-submarine protocols. Unbeknownst to Proteus’s crew, the nearby tanker Cushing had gone dark, too. Around midnight, the two ships collided. Realizing Proteus was sinking, the captain gave the order to abandon ship. All but one crew member survived.

painting of the steamship proteus
A painting depicts the steamship Proteus in 1910. Image: Antonio Jacobsen, courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Recording the stories of the sea

This August, archaeologists surveyed these two historic wrecks for the first time. Diving on Tarpon and Proteus, they captured imagery of the wrecks and documented their current conditions. Biologists also conducted wildlife density studies and fish counts to determine how the wrecks are being used as habitat by marine life. Wrecks like Tarpon and Proteus are important oases for marine life, providing attachment points for invertebrates like corals and anemones, and offering refuge for fish.

Researchers also documented the wrecks using singlebeam and multibeam sonar, assisting efforts to map these vessels and visualize the fish density surrounding them. Using photographs collected by divers, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary archaeologist Joe Hoyt has created a photogrammetry model of Tarpon, allowing the wreck to be explored from above the waves.

photogrammetry model of uss tarpon
Using photographs collected by divers, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary created a photogrammetry model of Tarpon. Click the image above to visit a 3D version of the model that can be rotated and closely examined. Image: Joe Hoyt/NOAA

Protecting history for tomorrow

Tarpon and Proteus are just two of the several wrecks being considered under a proposal to expand Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Many of the wrecks included in the proposal are vessels that were involved in the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. Monitor National Marine Sanctuary maritime archaeologist and research coordinator Tane Casserley explains that “there are so many stories yet to be told off the coast of North Carolina.” By documenting and including shipwrecks like Tarpon and Proteus, the sanctuary helps tell the region’s story throughout the centuries.

diver swimming near shipwreck
A diver hovers over the wreck of Proteus. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Wrecks like Tarpon and Proteus are also popular dive sites, bringing tourists to the coast and bolstering the economy of North Carolina. Protecting these wrecks helps ensure that these underwater museums are maintained for future visitors.

Ultimately, says Casserley, the North Carolina coastline is unlike any other place. “There’s nowhere else in the coastal United States where you’re going to get wrecks from all these different time periods so close together and so close to shore,” he explains. “It’s a very special area.” By researching and documenting the wrecks, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary is helping to preserve this special place, and its history, for tomorrow.

This expedition was supported by East Carolina University, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NOAA Fisheries, and NOAA’s Restoration Center.

Elizabeth Weinberg is the social media coordinator and writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.