Searching for shipwrecks


Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014

It’s been tough to settle back into the routine of my office after the inspiring expedition I participated in last month. Over the course of many years conducting Caribbean maritime research, I’ve encountered references to many shipwrecks, which I’ve filed away with the thought that they would come in handy some day.

So when a colleague asked me to participate in the first deep-water survey around the coast and reef off Belize to look for shipwrecks and interesting coral reef life, I grabbed my files and packed my bags. This part of the Caribbean is particularly tricky to navigate, being essentially a lee shore with hundreds of small cays, coral heads, and only narrow channels through the barrier reef to access the mainland. Many boats have plied these waters, from ancient Maya canoes to 17th-century Spanish galleons and later British and American merchant ships -– with many recorded, and also unrecorded, losses. I found some of the best resources for shipwrecks in that area right here at PEM, including 18th-century charts, old shipping journals and rare books in the library.

control room

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014

I spent ten days with the Ocean Exploration Trust, an organization promoting pure ocean exploration, founded by noted underwater explorer Robert Ballard. Throughout the expedition, we were able to engage in real-time interaction with scientists, students and the public through streaming videos and online chats at I flew into Belize, then boarded the 210-foot Exploration Vessel Nautilus. We decided to concentrate our efforts off the three large atolls that rise up out of the deep sea -– Lighthouse Reef, Glover’s Reef and Turneffe atoll.

 Part of the survey involved mapping the sea floor with a multibeam echosounder which produced the first detailed maps of the deep waters of Belize. They also helped us to theorize about places that would be interesting locales for our deep-diving robots.

NA048_mapping_2 complete-1

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014

 We launched two ROVs (remotely operated vehicles – unmanned submersibles) – that were connected to the ship by a tether and data cable.

putting in water

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014

sea floor

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014

We looked at sea life, sampled some interesting corals and scanned the ocean bottom with cameras and side-scan sonar for evidence of wrecks in between 1500 and 2500 feet of water. We found no shipwrecks this time, but we only sampled a miniscule portion of the ocean bottom around the reefs, so there is clearly potential for future expeditions. One of the crew likened our search for a wreck out there to looking for a bic pen somewhere on a football field from a blimp at 8,000 feet. Working with the technology on board was amazing, but it was particularly stimulating to work with such a fascinating team of specialists from around the world, each with their own narrow niche of expertise, but with the common goal of making new discoveries in the deep ocean that will inspire the next generation of explorers.


Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust © 2014


  1. gail spilsbury says:

    Thank you, Dan, for sharing this–I had the thrill of experiencing this exciting exploration vicariously.

  2. Victoria says:

    Wow, what an interesting experience/ adventure! I enjoyed learning maritime expedition jargon – echosounder and ROVs in particular. Thanks for sharing!

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