Early Encounters on a Western Frontier: The Search for Svyatoy Nikolai (1807-1808)
August 15 - September 15, 2023
Research Vessel Storm Petrel, Research Vessel Minnow
Pacific Ocean, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
In 2019, Congress designated the coastline of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary as part of the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area. To better understand the sanctuary’s maritime heritage, a team of researchers explored the nearshore area off La Push, Washington, from August 15 to September 15, 2023, in search of shipwrecks, and one in particular: Svyatoy Nikolai, a historically significant survey vessel for the Russian-American Company.
The four-week project was conducted in three parts: a remote sensing survey, data analysis, and target investigation. During the remote sensing survey, team members collected seafloor data using side-scan sonar, a magnetometer, and multibeam sonar. They then analyzed these data, looking for seafloor anomalies that could be potential shipwrecks and unexpected hazards that could endanger their operations.
With a list of targets and their geographic positions in hand, divers from the NOAA Diving Program, the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, East Carolina University, and NOAA Fisheries used metal detectors to investigate them. A local remotely operated vehicle (ROV) team from Port Townsend, the Sea Dragons, also joined the search with their custom-built ROV. The majority of the dives were at depths of 55-60 feet; the greatest depth explored was approximately 90 feet.
Top of mind during this search was Svyatoy Nikolai. The Russian-America Company purchased the approximately 100-foot-long ship, likely from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, in 1807. In 1808, the ship and crew (composed of men and women; Russian, English, and Aleut) departed Alaska to map the Pacific coastline and identify potential locations for an Oregon-based colony. The ship was driven ashore and abandoned off the coast of Washington. The stories of the crew and their subsequent interactions with Indigenous communities of the Hoh, Makah, and Quileute tribes provide valuable insight into maritime history in the era of colonization.
Unfortunately, the team did not locate Svyatoy Nikolai or discover any unknown wrecks; the targets turned out to be geological features. However, they did explore two known wrecks in the sanctuary, the British freighter Temple Bar and the Russian freighter Lamut, and conducted baseline condition assessments of the sites to monitor their preservation and inform their management. Despite being in a very dynamic marine environment, ship structure providing habitat for a variety of marine life was present at both sites.
Even though the team did not locate Svyatoy Nikolai, the project was still a success. Data collected will support future exploration activities and monitoring and management of historic sites and will also help managers better understand the sanctuary’s coastal geologic processes. In addition, the project demonstrated how remote sensing operations can be conducted safely in the sanctuary and how tribal co-managers and community partners can work together to enhance the value of data collected for the benefit of the sanctuary and the resources within.
Education theme pages provide the best of what the NOAA Ocean Exploration website has to offer to support educators in the classroom related to this project. Each theme page includes expedition features, lessons, multimedia, career information, and associated past expeditions and projects.
NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries also offers a collection of shipwreck-related education resources for teachers.
Funding for this project was provided by NOAA Ocean Exploration via its Ocean Exploration Fiscal Year 2023 Funding Opportunity and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
Published November 6, 2023