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Maritime Heritage

Our nation's history is all around us but many important pieces are vanishing. NOAA's Maritime Heritage Program was started in 2002 to help preserve the many stories of America's history hidden under the sea. Sanctuary and NOAA staff are working with numerous partners to locate, document and preserve dozens of historically significant shipwrecks and artifacts from America's past. Highlights from the past year include continuing conservation efforts by The Mariner's Museum on artifacts from the USS Monitor, the U.S. Navy's famous Civil War ironclad. In Michigan, the opening of the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center has created a new window to the region's history, and provides archaeologists and educators with state of the art facilities to do their work. In addition, more detective work continues in the hunt for the Navy's first submarine, the Civil War era USS Alligator. Following are a few examples of the exciting work done to unlock more secrets that have slipped through history's cracks.

Exploring Thunder Bay's Shipwrecks

In August, Thunder Bay sanctuary staff mounted an expedition to document deepwater shipwrecks within the sanctuary. The two-week project focused primarily on two sites: an unidentified two-masted schooner located by Robert Ballard's Institute for Exploration in 2001 and the wooden passenger steamer Pewabic, which sank in 1865. Both wrecks rest in 160 feet of water.

Site staff have very little archaeological data on shipwrecks in greater than 100 feet of water. Field projects like the 2005 expedition better enables staff to manage shipwrecks that are becoming increasingly popular sites for "technical divers" who venture beyond the recreational depth limit of 130 feet. The dramatic visual products from the project are also being used for exhibits in NOAA's new Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center where thousands of divers can view these remarkable historic sites. Funding for the project was provided by NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration.

Expedition to the USS Macon

Dirigibles, or rigid airships, were an important development in the history of aviation, and held their own as transports of large volumes of cargo and as military aircraft. They were also fuel efficient. Unfortunately there are no known examples of these craft that can be studied on land. However, underwater in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, lie the remains of the USS Macon, the last Navy built airship. The Macon crashed in 1935 off the Big Sur coast when a severe crosswind severed the ship's upper fins, sending shards of metal into her rear gas cells. It was first discovered in 1990.

At 785 feet in length, the Macon was considered the largest of its design. The airship was constructed with built-in aircraft hangers and trapeze launch and recovery systems to facilitate the Curtiss Sparrowhawk aircraft intended to protect the craft in war and to extend the ship's scouting abilities. The Macon conducted many successful launchings of its aircraft including an infamous mission to clandestinely locate President Franklin D. Roosevelt at sea in the Pacific aboard the cruiser USS Houston.

To begin investigating this giant relic, sanctuary staff completed Phase I of a scientific expedition to the Macon. A side-scan sonar survey of the wreck site identified its remains and also identified a new, uncharted debris field. In Phase II, scheduled for September 2006, archaeologists will conduct a systematic visual survey of these sites and record high definition video and still images of the wreck's features. Information from these expeditions will be used as a management tool to document changes since its discovery and for educational projects.

Oldest Shipwrecks in Hawai'i Found at Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Evidence suggests that two wrecks discovered last year in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are the lost British whaling ships Pearl and Hermes (for which the atoll has been named). These are the oldest shipwrecks yet discovered in the Hawaiian Islands. Both were sailing together from Honolulu to the newly discovered Japan Grounds in 1822, a route that, as the crew unfortunately found out, led them through treacherous and uncharted island waters. Little is known of the construction of the vessels themselves, and only a few tantalizing clues exist about the tragic events at the distant atoll. The artifacts are protected as historic resources within state waters, and are also a part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Maritime Archaeology Center Opens

In February 2005, the National Marine Sanctuary Program opened its new Maritime Archaeology Center in Newport News, Va. The 4,400-square-foot facility is located adjacent to The Mariners' Museum, which is partnering with NOAA to preserve and display artifacts recovered from the wreck of the USS Monitor. The Maritime Archaeology Center will serve as a research facility for scholars and historians and will also feature a small public exhibition area that describes the mission and activities for the larger sanctuary system.

Preserving America's Maritime Heritage in Coastal Communities

The program's maritime heritage efforts support President Bush's Preserve America Executive Order, which calls on federal agencies to step up efforts to inventory, preserve, protect and showcase federally-managed historic resources and foster heritage tourism. In 2005, the sanctuary program supported efforts by several coastal communities, including Alpena, Mich., Gloucester, Mass., Hatteras, N.C., and Galveston, Texas, to receive "Preserve America Community" designation and highlight their own maritime heritage.

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