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Herdendorf, C.E., T.G. Thompson, and R.D. Evans

Science on a deep-ocean shipwreck.
The Ohio Journal of Science, vol. 95(1).

ABSTRACT: A five-year scientific investigation of a site on the North Atlantic seafloor, 270 km off Cape Fear, NC, at a depth of 2,200 m, was undertaken in conjunction with recovery operations on a nineteenth-century steamship (SS Central America which sank in an 1857 hurricane while carrying passengers and cargo en route to New York from the California gold fields). Activities in the disciplines of oceanography, marine geology, marine biology, materials science, and undersea archaeology were undertaken with the tele-directed submersible robot, Nemo. The study included field observations at the site (recorded in over 3,000 hours of videotape and 25,000 still photographs), examination of hundreds of deep-ocean specimens and artifacts, and analysis of several experiments deployed on the seafloor. Resting on a gentle slope of the Blake Ridge, the shipwreck environment was cold, lightless, oxygen-rich, and flushed by moderate currents. The sediments were a foraminiferal-pteropod ooze, deposited at a slow rate (1.7 cm/1,000 years). A diverse community of errant and sessile benthic invertebrates and benthopelagic fishes colonized the shipwreck deriving from it food, cover, and a place of attachment. This deep-sea oasis supported a greater variety and concentration of animal life than did the surrounding ooze habitat. The timbers of the shipwreck were degraded by wood-boring bivalves. The iron machinery was extensively corroded and mobilized into flow structures (rusticles) by iron-oxidizing bacteria. Passenger luggage recovered from the shipwreck contained artifacts which provided insight about the life styles of the voyagers during the Gold Rush. This project demonstrated that a holistic approach to a deep-ocean site of historic importance can provide understandings of the inter-related processes with affect cultural deposits on the abyssal seafloor and the marine life that they foster.

Benthoctopus sp. Fig. 100: A deep-sea octopus (Benthoctopus new species) crawls over timbers within the shipwreck of the Central America.
AVI video (1,160 Kb)
MPEG video (759 Kb)

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