Unraveling a shipwreck's mystery in real time

Bethany Eden Smith ’05 gave a talk at Rider about her experiences exploring a shipwreck
Adam Grybowski
Unraveling a shipwreck's mystery in real time

Until recently, this copper-clad ship likely sat undisturbed since it sank sometime in the 19th century.

More than 4,300 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico lies the "Monterrey Shipwreck." The copper-clad ship likely sank sometime in the 19th century, but the circumstances surrounding its fate remain a mystery. Who owned the ship? What was its mission? Why did it sink? 

Shell Oil first identified the ship during a sonar scan in 2011 while it was looking for potential spots to drill for oil. Before then, it sat undisturbed for more than 100 years. In April 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship Okeanos Explorer made a preliminary investigation of the shipwreck site. Fifteen months later, Bethany Eden Smith ’05 boarded the E/V Nautilus, setting off from Galveston, Texas, with a group of scientists to study the wreck in-depth.  

The Nautilus shared its discoveries live on the web during the expedition. Working two four-hour shifts a day, Smith helped facilitate the live broadcast, called Exploration Now, from the ship’s control room. The 211-foot Nautilus can hold a crew of 48 — 31 scientists and 17 crewmembers. “The ship was full the whole time we were out there,” Smith says, and everyone in the control room was miked, allowing the audience to experience their conversation and discovery in real time. Viewers even interacted with them, sending in their questions live.

Smith, who earned a bachelor’s in marine science from Rider and a master’s in biological oceanography from The College of William and Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science, returned to Rider on March 7 to talk about this adventure in-depth. At 3 p.m in Science 316-317, Smith presented "To Inner Space and Beyond: Discoveries of a 2013 Educator at Sea” as part of the GEMS Seminar Series. 

“That trip was the first time I ever experienced marine science in that way,” Smith says, adding that most scientists don’t reveal their discoveries until they’re ready. Aboard the Nautilus, “They share it with the world as it’s happening. It’s amazing to know you’re seeing live video from 4,300 feet below the sea and hearing what people are doing as they’re doing it.” 

The live broadcast resulted in some of the site’s highest viewership and web traffic, Smith says. “We had people who would come back night after night and couldn’t go to sleep or tuned in at work during their lunch break,” she says.

No divers entered the water to explore the site. Instead, two remotely operated vehicles aboard the NautilusHercules and Argus, were sent down. Equipped with sonar, sampling tools and cameras, the ROVs explored the bottom of the sea, sending back images of a remarkably well-preserved ship. They also collected artifacts that may one day be displayed in museums. 

“The shipwreck was unique, with really well-preserved artifacts,” Smith says. 

Cups, bowls and wine bottles were retrieved in perfect condition. The ROVs picked up a glass bottle full of preserved ginger, probably used for seasickness. The crew gazed at cannons, muskets, anchors, sand clocks, octants and other artifacts on the seafloor. 

Though this was her first taste in marine archeology, Smith had been on several research expeditions as a student. Being outdoors was crucial to her upbringing; she grew up hunting and fishing in the Poconos. “A couple of family trips to the beach and the aquarium set me on my path,” she says. The experiences in the classroom and the field as a GEMS student helped cement her decision to study marine science, building the foundation for future opportunities like joining the Nautilus crew. “Rider’s a small school but look where you can go,” Smith says. “It’s something I tell my students.” 

Though artifacts offer clues to solving the mystery of the Monterrey Shipwreck, they have yet to give up their secrets. In fact, the story grew during the final 24 hours of the expedition when the crew discovered two additional shipwrecks within five miles of the main site. Scientists believe the three wrecks are related, Smith says. "Perhaps one of the coolest parts about it is that everyone tuned in to the website was able to discover these wrecks right along with us," she says. 

Communicating with the public aboard the Nautilus extends the communication aspect of Smith’s role as a teacher. “I decided to take the pathway to communicating marine science to students,” she says. “I like getting people excited about it so they can go out and explore its different aspects.” 

The experience also gave her the chance to meet one of her heroes, Robert Ballard, the man who explored some of history’s most famous shipwrecks, including the Titanic, the German battleship Bismarck and the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown. Ballard is founder of the Ocean Exploration Trust, which operates the Nautilus. He may be the most arresting figure Smith met during her journey, but she appreciated working with the entire crew. “Getting to meet and interact with people from federal government agencies, top marine archeologists and computer technicians is something teachers don’t normally get to do,” she says. 

For more information about this or other presentations in the GEMS Seminar Series, please contact Jonathan Husch at 609-896-5330 or [email protected]